It’s not easy being someone’s fairy tale.
Leigh Hurley is making a name for himself among thieves and criminals, even if it isn’t the life he would’ve chosen. He shouldn’t have screwed over the Moretti brothers, though. It landed him in the river with weights on his feet. But somehow he’s escaped certain death. The last thing he remembers before waking on the riverbank is a beautiful face and a soft kiss.
Then, Tolomeo turns up naked at Leigh’s apartment.
Tolly comes from a race of killers—merfolk who drown humans for fun. But Tolly is different, and when he sees a human in trouble, he offers a kiss, granting the man the ability to breathe underwater… and himself the ability to walk on land, at least until the next full moon. The ancient laws state that if he is given a vow of love by the one he kissed, he will be able to keep his legs. If not, he will be put to death when he returns to the water.
But love is not something Leigh offers easily… and Tolly has a secret of his own.
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IF HIS life had gone differently, maybe Leigh Hurley would have been an engineer working toward his master’s in thermodynamics by now instead of sinking to the bottom of the river.
At least he couldn’t tell how filthy the water was since it was midnight and he was plummeting fast into the dark depths, the glimmer of moonlight above him quickly disappearing. He was a good swimmer, not that it mattered with twenty-pound weights attached to his ankles. He had about two minutes before he passed out, and then it would be curtains.
Fighting against the panic clawing at his chest the same way his lungs begged for air, he forced his body to curl downward in a frantic attempt to reach the weights. They were cinder blocks attached with actual shackles. Under normal circumstances, he might have been able to remove them using one of his lockpicks, but he couldn’t see. A bitter mantra of “if only” followed his path downward like the bubbles of air escaping as he tried to think of some other way, any way to get out of this.
If only he wasn’t a criminal. If only he hadn’t been so damn opportunistic. If only he hadn’t gotten caught.
It had been a smart plan. The streets by the docks where Leigh lived were split in half between the Moretti brothers and Arthur Sweeney, who might have been Irish to their Italian, but that wasn’t the root of their animosity. Everything revolved around power in Cove City. At the end of the night, what mattered was which family had the most territory, like some old-fashioned trade of land equaling wealth, which was always true, and Leigh owned nothing, not even the apartment he could barely pay the rent on.
Since his best friend was Alvin Sweeney, Arthur’s son, Leigh played for their side, hoping to rise in the ranks on more than nepotism. Looking good to Sweeney Senior meant making a splash on the scene, so Leigh had been working overtime for months on small thefts that caused an increasing decline in how much the Morettis brought in from their protection racket.
Leigh gave most of what he stole to Sweeney, but some he returned to the neighboring mom-and-pop stores as a good Samaritan, and a little he kept for himself. This made the Morettis look weak, like they couldn’t protect their own. It was all about the long game and how it would make things easier for Sweeney to claim those streets in the months and years to come.
It would have worked, too, if they hadn’t been waiting for Leigh tonight.
“Nobody crosses the Morettis,” Leo, younger brother to Vincent and in charge of their muscle, had said before his goons dropped Leigh over the side of the docks.
Now he was going to drown with no one to remember him other than Alvin and maybe the handful of people in his building who relied on his technical talents and didn’t care if he was a runner for a mobster as long as their TVs and dishwashers worked.
It was such a waste, pushing him to struggle harder to swim upward after he gave up on the shackles, vainly trying to beat back fate, even though he knew he wasn’t strong enough and barely made an inch of headway before he continued to sink.
Soon he’d disappear, another good riddance that he doubted even his parole officer would miss for how often she sighed and told him to make something of himself instead of falling back into bad habits. But what was there to make of a life without privilege? Leigh had no prospects, no family, no education, only honed skills of survival. He’d been a thief since he could fit his hand inside a passing pocket. With his record, even at only twenty-five, there was no hope for him in this city that didn’t lean on Arthur Sweeney, and now he’d lost that opportunity too.
The water was cold even in spring since this part of the river was wider. The docks wouldn’t see any activity until morning, and not much then either at this location, though with a few shortcuts, it wasn’t far to Leigh’s apartment. He’d die close to home, if that meant anything. He just wished he’d been smarter, faster, and had another chance to do things better.
Those two minutes had to be up, because it was getting harder to fight, his mind sluggish and unable to think of a solution to save him. He was even starting to hallucinate, maybe dreaming, maybe already dead and fading away. A light shone in the blackness as he hit bottom. More like a glimmer of bare skin, because he’d swear he saw a face approaching as his mind grew hazier and his vision dimmed.
Somehow the face became clearer, though, beautiful too, like something ethereal—flawless features, concerned eyes, dark hair swaying in the water. If he was real, he would have been the exact sort of man who would have made Leigh take notice. Maybe the man was an angel, and Leigh’s passing wouldn’t be as painful or as terrifying as he’d feared, despite his lungs burning with the struggle to breathe.
But he didn’t deserve an angel. He wasn’t good in any sense of the word or worthy of heaven. He didn’t believe in love, not even in saying the words, because that was more damaging and hollower than being hated if it came from somewhere fake or turned into rubbish along the way. His father had taught him that early, and life only reaffirmed the dangers of love and trust over the years.
Scared as Leigh was, part of him believed he had this coming, but the angel in the water didn’t snarl or fade away. He came close enough that Leigh could make out every detail of his face, including occasional freckles and a wide smile. Then the beautiful man floated closer, looking back at Leigh in wonder, and captured his lips in a cold kiss.
A song filled his mind like when one got stuck in his head, playing distantly and sweet like he imagined this man’s voice might be—lovely but understated, just a tune without words.
Leigh was dying. He should have been filled with terror, but in his last moments, he felt calm to have had such a pleasant final dream.
The next moment, he was gasping for breath, somehow on shore, on the riverbank far enough from where he’d been dropped that Leo and his goons couldn’t see him, but still close enough to walk home. It didn’t make sense. The man in the water couldn’t be real. Cove City didn’t produce unknown saviors, yet when Leigh looked down at his ankles, the cinder blocks were gone.
Coughing into the sand and dirt, unsure how he’d been saved or if he’d been touched by some miracle, all Leigh knew was that he had to get home, and after he rested, he’d have precious little time to prevent this same fate from befalling him again tomorrow night.
With a mighty push, he thrust up onto his knees, staggered to his feet, and began the slow trek back to his apartment, trying to banish the vision of that lovely face from overriding what he knew could only have been a trick of the mind.
I have a Bachelor of Arts in a personally designed major from St. Olaf College in Creative Writing, and have been posting content online for many years, including maintaining the blog for the digital marketing company Outsell. I spent a summer writing screenplay script coverages for a company in L.A., and am an avid consumer of fiction through film, prose, and video games.
I live in Minneapolis, MN, with my husband John, and our cat Helga.