Authors: Kelly Said,Jocelyn Adams,Claire Gillian,Julie Reece
J. Taylor Publishing
Published by J. Taylor Publishing
Heart’s Desire — Copyright © 2012 Julie Reece
The Sweetest Song — Copyright © 2012 Claire Gillian
Pearl of Pau’maa — Copyright © 2012 Kelly Said
The Undergarden — Copyright © 2012 Jocelyn Adams
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, events, locations, or any other element is entirely coincidental.
ISBN 978-1-937744-04-5 (EPUB)
First Published: June 2012
J. Taylor Publishing
Though she swam underwater, Tessa Morgan moved within the ocean’s current as easily as she might a gentle breeze. Her breathing and vision worked effortlessly as though on dry land. When she stretched out with her limbs, maneuvering through the depths, her subconscious acknowledged she still lay in her college dorm bed, but the pressure of cool water against her skin tempted her to believe otherwise.
As usual, she angled her body toward a dim glow emanating from the other side of a coral reef. When she rounded the far end, a familiar underwater city loomed before her. Above the little kingdom, the faint, silver arc of a dome curved hundreds of feet over the tallest turret, flanking the castle’s keep.
Fish, some as big as platters, enveloped her. Their slick bodies wound under and over, caressing her limbs the way a cat rubs a human’s calves in greeting. She couldn’t help but giggle. Caught again in the fantastical, repeating dream, she decided to relax and enjoy. Unafraid, she reached out to touch one of the blue finned animals, and the group darted off, disappearing into a kelp forest.
Tessa shifted onto her back and continued paddling. Her eyes sought the sun however many leagues above her position. Despite the light’s distance, she had no trouble discerning the landscape. When she rolled over, white sand rose and dipped in sloping hills beneath her, interrupted by the occasional jagged rock, flood of bubbles, or darting silver fish. As a loggerhead lumbered by, she grabbed the edge of his shell and let the beast transport her through the swaying, green fence, standing guard around the city. She shivered as she passed through thousands of silken fingers, in the form of aquatic plant life, stroking her skin.
Near the gate, her hand released its hold on her reptilian sleigh, and she floated to the gritty floor. A tilt of her head brought the sight of a great archway. Letters she didn’t recognize rose in relief against the peach stone and offered information she could not decipher. A phosphorescent sheen of pink, blue and violet coated the space within the arch. Delicate as a soap bubble, the barrier parted as she pushed through and entered the city, the weight of her body returning as it would have above ground. Her hand ran the length of her sleeve. Dry and warm.
She never lost her fascination with the sensations inside her dream world.
No one milled about the wide, golden streets. She wandered an open courtyard. Pathways forked left and right leading to doorways outlined with intertwining driftwood. Each dwelling space boasted a private atrium decorated with giant conch or coral, complete with wrought iron, shell encrusted seating. Tessa wasn’t sure how comfortable the chairs would be but couldn’t deny their beauty.
As her feet swept up the central path, the journey ended at the castle’s main entrance. Heavy gilded doors stood wide open revealing turquoise marble flooring. She entered without conscience, reasoning she could do whatever she wanted in her own wonder-filled dream.
Burning tapers bled wax from every chandelier and wall sconce, giving the entry hall a warm, inviting glow. A swish and drag of fabric had her glancing down only to find her apparel had changed to a flowing, cinnamon colored dress.
I love these dreams.
She smiled to herself and sought her image in the huge foyer mirror hanging to her right. Soft brown eyes sparked over lips painted a glossy coral. Caramel waves tumbled down below bare shoulders, while the lighter blonde highlights that framed her face were pulled back by pearl clips. A corseted top pinched her already slim waist to the point of suffocation. The low cut bodice and push-up cups within enhanced even her modest bust line. Fabric multiplied at her hips and ended in satin puddles on the dark floor. The smooth chill of marble let her know her feet remained shoeless.
In her bliss, she twirled, forcing yards of fabric to shoot away from her body. She spun from the mirror, halting against a form both firm and yielding. One strong hand enveloped hers, while the other slipped around her middle, pulling her close. On cue, soft music from an unseen orchestra filled the hall. Strings first, low and haunting, followed by wind instruments. Eerie and intoxicating, the sounds worked like a potion to further muddle her already altered state.
She raised her eyes to her partner but could not make out more than shadowed features. His breath, though warm against her skin, sent chills through her frame. Rough fingers left her waist, trailed across her bare shoulders and up the back of her neck until they lost themselves in her hair. A subtle mixture of patchouli and orangewood filled the air. As the specter’s nose grazed her cheek, she raised her chin, and parted her lips to welcome his.
“Tessa,” he whispered. “My Tessa.”
“Dammit, Tessa. Come on!”
Not the dream. Tessa’s roommate groaned her name again from her bed under the far window, demanding Tessa answer her cell.
Another harsh blare of a phone penetrated her groggy mind.
She jerked awake, the repeating noise stealing the rest of her dream.
Tessa pushed up from her pillow. With one hand sweeping the curtain of hair from her face, the other groped for her cell. She ran her thumb over the screen and bit back a growl. “Hello?”
“Miss Contessa Louise Morgan?” asked a tentative voice from the other end.
“Yes. Who is this? It’s … three o-flipping-clock in the morning.” Tessa fumbled for the light next to her bed. Paige, her roommate, moaned and rolled over, pulling blankets over her head.
“This is Dr. Robert Mangus with UAMS hospital in Little Rock. Are you the daughter of a Mr. and Mrs. Stephan Morgan?”
At the doctor’s formal tone, all remnants of sleep evaporated and a cold ball formed in the pit of her stomach. “Yes … I … am.”
“Are you alone, Miss Morgan? Do you have any friends or family you can call to be with you now?”
Why would a doctor ask that unless …
“I don’t see what that—”
“I’m sorry, Miss Morgan. Your parents have been involved in a serious automobile accident. We need you to come to the hospital immediately. Is there anyone who could travel with you?”
Her phone dropped to the mattress with a light thud. The speaker continued to emit sounds of a muffled, distant voice. “Miss Morgan? Miss Morgan, are you still there?”
• • •
With her withered leg tucked under her body, Tessa pushed off with her left foot against the sand, creating a gentle sway in the old bench swing. Worn gray as driftwood by rain and ocean winds, the sturdy bench had been a favorite resting place of hers for years. The morning sun still hid beneath the horizon, stars fading against the backdrop of the early morning darkness.
As the breeze blew, circling round her face, Tessa fought a chill and pulled her red throw tighter about her shoulders.
Was I wrong to come here?
The Moss Landing home on the Atlantic coast had been a vacation retreat for her and her parents every summer before their death eight months before. With no extended family still alive, she’d left their historic residence in Arkansas, taken a leave of absence from school, and moved back to the little bungalow in an attempt to glue her shattered life together again.
It wasn’t working.
Tessa dug her toes deeper into the sand. She kicked out, spraying the granules toward the beach. At twenty-one, she had started her junior year at U of A when the call had come. Her mother had died at the scene, and though her father had hung on long enough to say goodbye to her, he’d also told Tessa he couldn’t live without his wife. She plead through her tears, begged him to stay, to fight for her, but he’d simply squeezed her fingers, closed his eyes, and slipped away.
Just like that, all love, support, and stability lay in the ground at Greendale Cemetery, leaving Tessa alone and confused. She hated to wallow in self-pity and resentment, but she couldn’t shake it off either.
“You’re up early.” Maggie Watson, long time neighbor and friend, said as the first pink rays formed beyond the waves.
Tess glanced over her shoulder as Maggie snapped the crumbs off a yellow kitchen towel.
“Can’t sleep again?”
A half smile tugged at Tessa’s lips. “How’d you guess?”
“I’m psychic that way.” Maggie hurried back into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her ample backside. Less than three minutes later, she reappeared and traveled out the door, down the steps, and across twenty yards of sugar white sand to where Tessa sat. Hands, gnarled and spotted with age, circled a mug of steaming herbal tea and held it under Tessa’s chin. “Drink that. No arguments.”
“Thanks, Mags.” Tessa lowered her mouth and blew over the green liquid to cool it before taking a sip.
“Mind if I sit?”
“’Course not.” Tessa pulled the heavy wrap from around her and inched over to accommodate the elderly woman. Gulls called to one another over the dark sea, gliding in and out of an early fog that crept across the swelling tide.
“So, what do you suppose is waiting out there for us today, dear?”
With a shrug, another smile crept over Tessa’s face. “Fish?”
“Comedian.” Maggie patted Tessa’s knee and bobbed her head toward the ocean. “I’ve always loved the sea, myself. It’s therapeutic, you know? Something about the salt and wind ministers to a certain kind of soul.”
Tessa nodded her agreement.
Maggie twisted the towel in her hands. “My Henry tells me not to fuss over you, but it’s indecent, you cooped up in that house alone. I worried it might be too soon, your coming here. You should be finishing school.”
Assuming Maggie meant facing memories of time spent with her parents, Tessa couldn’t agree more. Afternoon swimming lessons with her father, sandcastles with her mom, even childhood playmate, Cameron, had been a part of their summers past. The local boy, Cam, had been her constant companion seven wonderful summers in a row before he disappeared. Two years her senior, at sixteen, she supposed he’d outgrown her. Tessa drained more tea from her cup. Her eyelids slid shut as the soothing properties of chamomile and lavender coated her throat and stomach.
As she lowered her mug, the ring on her third finger clinked against the blue and white china.
Maggie leaned over—more like a second mother than a summer neighbor. She fingered the green gem surrounded by braids of gold as Tessa reopened her eyes. Maggie’s brow creased. “You still wear this?”
Tessa hesitated. The ring, presented as a gift from Cameron the last time she’d seen him, never left her finger. Not only a stunning piece of jewelry, the ring signified important memories she clung to, especially with all that had happened. “Did you know mom wanted me to give it back? She said it was too extravagant a present to accept at fourteen. I was so mad at the time, I burst into tears.”
“Your mother used the word ‘tantrum’ to describe your outburst as I remember.”
Tessa laughed before growing thoughtful again. “I’ve no idea what happened to him. Every time I come back here, I hope we’ll run into each other. He was crazy fun. Best friend I ever had, then he vanished without so much as a see-ya.” Her brow furrowed. “I bet he hooked up with one of those wet T-shirt winners from the wharf and forgot all about me.”
“Tess!” Maggie chided. “He was, is still, the most charming, tow-headed boy I’ve ever met.”
Tessa pictured his dark skin, the way his platinum hair hung over his green eyes. “I had the worst crush on him that last year. Maybe he knew and couldn’t face telling me he didn’t feel the same.” She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear. “Besides, I’d rather he
shallow than if something happened like a … an accident.” She choked on the words.
“Gracious, your pessimism gives me headaches.” Maggie gave a little huff. “Why don’t you take a walk, enjoy the relaxation of the ocean and clear your head a little?”
Tessa burrowed deeper in her blanket, resisting the older woman’s suggestion. “I’d rather stay here, if I may?”
“You mayn’t. You’re a beautiful young woman with her whole life yet to be lived. You cannot spend too long thinking only of the past.”
Tessa swallowed a sigh. “Fine.” She knew Maggie only meant to help, but the trip back to her roots in Moss Landing had seemed her last hope of finding her way.
She just wasn’t used to having to make her own decisions. When she’d struggled with a career choice, her father chose for her. When she’d become too solitary, believing herself deficient in the alluring-men-with-a-great-body area, her mom supplied Tessa with a string of blind dates.
Her neighbor stood. Silver hair, piled loosely on top of her head, stayed secure with a pair of painted chopsticks. Pale blue eyes sparkled. A satisfied expression had her lips curling up while high cheekbones bloomed pink color.
Tessa handed over her empty cup. “I’ll see you later.”
Maggie set it on the bench seat, waving her off. “Come see us for lunch, you’re far too skinny.”
Tessa saluted. “Will do, Ms. Bossy.”
The shoreline grew rockier as Tessa meandered down the deserted beach, and a thickening fog developed. Spray from the tumbling sea misted her skin, refreshing her sleepless body. Shoeless, Tessa picked her way among the craggy boulders, stopping from time to time to examine some washed up shell or length of kelp.
She smiled, acknowledging Maggie had been right—she usually was, but still, her mind drifted to her first meeting with Cameron.
The boy with yellow hair had popped up from the waves behind her while she’d bit back tears. The teasing from several new kids she’d met on the beach had reached maximum torment. Hands fisted at her sides and chest heaving, all she thought about was how to get in one good punch before they took her down. They would, too. She may have won a fight with polio as a toddler, but the disease left her right leg underdeveloped. Thinner muscles and a tad shorter length left a small hitch in her step. Though her parents had taught her to feel sorry for children who bullied, their advice hadn’t helped that day.
Cam, though, seemed to come from nowhere to defend her honor. Older and taller, when he told the others to take a hike, they ran like the cowards they were.