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.
LEIGH DIDN’T mean to fall asleep when he reached home and shed his soaked clothing. He only planned to rest his eyes for a moment, but he’d underestimated how exhausted he was, and when he roused it was to a loud knock at his door, with the clock on his nightstand blinking 7:00 a.m.
He didn’t have time to be tired. That could already be Moretti goons or Sweeney himself, furious at Leigh for failing. It didn’t help that he didn’t feel as though he’d slept. His dreams had been filled with the face he imagined in the water. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a man like that before, but his mind had conjured such a perfect specimen for his final moments.
The kiss had been nice too.
Leigh couldn’t get distracted by phantoms, though. While he had no idea how the weights had come loose from his ankles or how he’d ended up on shore, it couldn’t have been some mystery man.
“I’m coming!” Leigh called when the knocking refused to cease. It wasn’t the Morettis or Sweeney or they would have kicked down the door by now. It had to be Miss Maggie. Only she ever got this uppity before 9:00 a.m.
Yanking the door open, Leigh stood in his sweats and long-sleeved T-shirt, barefoot and still chilled from his time in the river, but clean after a shower when he’d arrived home. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and scrubbed at the closely shorn length of his hair.
Miss Maggie was indeed the person on the other side of his door, but she looked particularly surly this morning. “William,” she said sharply, using his given name, which he despised. “About time. I might be an old woman, but that does not mean I want to see some young man walking buck naked through my halls at all hours just because you had a wild night.”
“Excuse me?” Leigh took a moment to process what she was complaining about. He hadn’t started to undress while still in the hall last night, had he? He was out of it when he returned home, but not that disoriented.
“You know I support your lifestyle, whatever it may be, just so long as you keep the volume down after 11:00 p.m. and act respectfully, but this was just vulgar. Are you playing some game with the boy?”
“Game? Miss Maggie, I have no idea what you’re—”
But before he could finish, she yanked someone else into view, who was wearing what appeared to be one of her housecoats and nothing else, not even shoes, though that wasn’t what stopped Leigh short.
It was the man from the river. Same hair, same eyes, same everything.
Leigh really had died last night.
Which meant he was in hell if he was still dealing with Maggie’s temper.
“Keep your evening activities confined to your apartment. Now, mind yourself, young man,” she said to the flesh and blood figure who’d saved Leigh’s life, “because I expect that nightgown returned at some point, preferably washed.”
She shoved the man into Leigh’s arms, and he had barely a second to register the full form of him, slim and tall, maybe half an inch taller than Leigh, and just as beautiful as he remembered, before Maggie hurried down the hall in a huff.
Leigh stumbled backward, causing the man to stumble with him, and pushed the door closed more on reflex than conscious choice. The man was real. Leigh hadn’t imagined him. But if he’d saved Leigh’s life, why was he only showing himself now?
And why the hell wasn’t he wearing any clothes?
“I found you,” he said in a breathless voice, as if in awe of Leigh, immediately evoking the memory of that same voice singing. “I knew I would, but still, I found you.”
Carefully Leigh pushed at the man to hold him in front of him so they could get their bearings. He didn’t seem very stable on his feet. Had he been drunk last night? Was that why he was swimming in the river at midnight naked and wandered all the way here in the same state? His eyes, large and almond-shaped, didn’t look intoxicated. With olive skin, a reddish tint to his black hair, and freckles, he looked as likely to be of South Pacific descent as Greek or Jewish, maybe all three.
“You are even more handsome than when I saw you in the water,” he said, with an intensity to how he stared that made Leigh shiver. The peek of long legs out of the housecoat was not helping his straying thoughts.
Leigh’s generally fair looks with blond hair and blue eyes had gotten him out of sticky situations before. He knew what he had and how to use it, but he didn’t think he compared with this lithe elfish beauty before him with a smile that lit up the whole apartment.
“It’s you,” he said, unable to articulate anything more than that. He pulled his hands from the man’s shoulders, thinking it too intimate considering he was wearing nothing more than a nightgown.
“Yes.” The man stepped into his space as if beckoned by a magnetic pull.
“You saved me. You found me.”
“My apologies it took so long. I hesitated to follow, and once I decided to, I had trouble finding my feet, as they say. I knew the Breath of Life would lead me to you, though. Our souls are intertwined now, William. Ah, but you prefer Leigh, don’t you?”
How…? “How do you know that?” And what was he talking about?
“You know my name as well.”
“No, I…. Tolomeo. Tolly,” he said before he could finish denying it. Had they met on the shore after all and Leigh simply didn’t remember?
“Yes,” Tolly said, smiling wider still.
This was too strange. Leigh’s head was pounding, he was exhausted, and he still had to worry about Sweeney and the Morettis. He could not get caught up with some weird nudist—flower child—whatever this man was—when his life was in shambles.
“Look, I don’t remember everything from last night, so if you explained this before, who you are, I’m sorry. I appreciate what you did. You saved my life, but it won’t stay saved for long—”
“Those people who tried to drown you will continue to wish you harm,” Tolly said.
“Yes. So if you came here expecting something more than my thanks, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have much to offer.”
“Oh, I am not like my brethren, I swear to you. I wish for no boon or life debt.”
Okay. Was this guy a method actor or something? Maybe he was just crazy. “What do you want from me, then?”
“I wish to stay with you,” Tolly said as matter-of-factly as asking for cab fare. “Forever.”
Holding up his hands to ward off whatever reaction might come next, Leigh chose his words very carefully. “Tolly, I will give you something to wear and then maybe there’s someone we can call, okay? Or a hospital you came from?”
“I came from the sea,” Tolly said, unfazed by Leigh’s line of questioning. “Well, the river in this case, but all water is connected in my world. We can transport between depths through magic. I like bodies of water close to cities. The rest of my kin stay away, which I prefer, and I get to experience more of the human world.”
“Human world? Your… kin?”
Leigh curtailed his reactions as best he could. “Tolly, is there anyone I can call to come get you?”
At last, a bit of that sunshine disposition flickered. “I have no one. No family or friends to speak of. That is why I chose to follow you. I was drawn to you, Leigh”—he stepped forward, making Leigh step back—“in the water, in your last moments, like I have never been drawn to anything. Others of my kin would have let you die, drowned you themselves, or forced a more self-serving pact, but I knew I had finally found the one who could give me legs.”
If this guy snapped, Leigh was fairly certain he could take him, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “You are not a mermaid. You’re a man. You’re on legs right now. You did not have a tail last night.”
“You only saw my face.”
“You didn’t have a tail because mermaids don’t exist!”
“I shall prove it to you. I need only to submerge in water to call out my tail. Then will you believe me? Your bathroom should have what I need.” Without waiting for an answer, he glanced around the apartment and pushed past Leigh, deeper inside.
Leigh needed to get this guy out of his home, even if he had saved him last night.
Tolly found the bathroom quick enough and proceeded to turn on the taps to the tub before Leigh could organize his thoughts for a proper protest.
He tried anyway. “Listen, I don’t have time for this.”
“I am used to cold water, but perhaps I shall try something warmer,” Tolly said as he held his hand under the water and adjusted the taps accordingly. “Is warm water nice?”
“I… yeah, usually. Can we please just talk about this—”
Tolly disrobed without shame, right there in front of Leigh, just shed the housecoat and stood there nude. He was even more beautiful bare, entirely hairless below the neck, thin like a swimmer but well-muscled, without a single scar or imperfection other than the sunspots that Leigh thought only enhanced how beautiful he was.
Being gorgeous and naked in Leigh’s bathroom did not change that he was clearly insane, however.
“Tolly, you can’t just…. We need to talk about this.” Leigh turned to stare at the wall. He was a hardened criminal. Sort of. Sometimes. It should not be this difficult to throw someone out of his home!
“Not until you believe me. Our conversation will go nowhere if you think me mad.”
He was a smart crazy person at least, but that didn’t help the situation. Leigh had to focus on the Morettis, on what to say when he saw Sweeney, on how to get himself out of this mess so he didn’t end up dead some other way tonight, without having to flee the city. He’d break parole if he did that, and the money he’d saved so far wouldn’t last him long on the run.
Maybe the Morettis didn’t know where he lived. If they did, surely they would have sent someone to rummage through his things, looking for that extra cash. Maybe they did know and someone was on their way now. No point in rushing over when they thought him dead.
“Tolly, just put the housecoat back on or grab a towel. I’ll get you some clothes—”
“Do you not find my form pleasing?”
Out of the corner of Leigh’s eye, he could tell Tolly stood facing him, hands running down his hips and thighs like he really was unused to legs. “It is very pleasing, but it’s not…. I hardly know you.”
“Ah yes, human decorum. I might fail at that on occasion, but I will try my best. I know so much of your world, but I have not experienced it firsthand. Still, you know me better than you think through our connection. The Breath of Life is a powerful bond. I am yours now. You are welcome to look at me.”
Leigh was certain some of the porn he’d watched over the years had lines like that. “Tolly….”
“I do not wish to make you uncomfortable. I will get into the tub to conceal myself until the water is high enough. Hopefully you will not find my tail displeasing.”
Tolly lowered himself into the tub, and Leigh allowed a glance in his direction. Even mostly hidden, he was enchanting to look at. Despite having come from the water last night, his hair had perfect body and poof to it. Why did someone so gorgeous and who had saved Leigh’s life have to be nuts?
“I have to figure out how to handle those men who tried to kill me. Do you understand?”
“Of course. I will help you.”
“No offense, but you’re a little skinny to be a bodyguard. This is going to take strategic planning.”
“I am an excellent planner. I often have to dodge others of my kin. I am not popular, as I do not conform to the merfolk ways. Kill or be killed—it loses all the magic of life, even when magic surrounds me in the water. How can one live like that?”
Leigh almost took the words as an attack, though he knew Tolly didn’t mean it that way. He’d never killed anyone before, but his plans to rise in the ranks with Sweeney meant one day he would. Kill or be killed was the only way he could survive in this city.
“You were right, warm water is nice, though the cold can be pleasant too.” Tolly tilted his head back and sank lower into the tub.
Scrubbing a hand down his face, Leigh was thinking of how to get this naked delusional poet out of his apartment without drawing the attention of his neighbors when he heard a strange wet slap and a contented sigh.
“There, you see? I am merfolk, but you gave me legs, and now, I am yours.”
The red glimmer in Leigh’s periphery before he looked up had to be an illusion because of how tired he was. There was no way it could be anything else.
But when his gaze focused on Tolly in the tub once more, it wasn’t a pair of feet propped on the edge but the unfurling of the most beautiful deep red tailfin he had ever laid eyes on, trimmed in gold-tipped scales.