The Last Mermaid
Leila walked quickly out of the ballroom and into the violet dusk of the garden. She was moving because she had to move; she was walking because she could not stand still.
People were turning to look—slow down, slow down. She did not need attention now. Glancing figures in the shadows, phantom faces, the glitter of diamonds like fireflies in the dark. But she did not slow. Her heart was racing and her hands were trembling. She felt rather ill, as if her corset had been cinched too tight.
Of all the queer notions, of all the nights to come undone—
She could close her eyes and still see him. The man in the ballroom, the stranger watching her....
She’d never seen a man so truly, fiercely handsome. She’d never seen a face like his, clean carved lines and smoky shadows, the glint of his lashes and eyes of such devilish deep blue. He might have stepped to life from a Renaissance portrait, a painted prince of sapphire and gold, jeweled colors over jet. She had been turning, preparing to cross the room yet again, and then....
Then she had seen him, by himself across the chamber, leaning against one of those ridiculous pillars with his arms crossed, unsmiling. A short wig and tailored elegance; he was done up in black, no velvet, no gaudy lace, watching her with utter concentration. As if he knew her. As if she knew him.
And the oddest chill had come over her, a most peculiar weakness in her limbs. For an instant—suspended there in sapphire—
The gravel was noisy, just as she had predicted. Leila rounded a corner, heard voices and instinctively turned the other direction. She needed air, that was all. A few minutes in the November calm to find her composure, to breathe and think and remember who and what she was.
She found a gazebo of whitewashed lattice, a vine of barren ivy buried through it with lavish devotion. There was a bench inside, almost lost to the night, no one about but crickets and owls. She sat down gratefully, peeled off her shoes, and began to massage her sore feet.
Che would follow soon. She needed to consider what she’d say.
I’m fine. It was too warm. Too many beaus. Too many eyes. I’m fine.
The cold air was like truth, a hard burn in her chest. She inhaled deeply, as much as she could hold, letting it out again in a silent hiss.
Silly chit, to lose her head over gold-tipped lashes and a square jaw.
The chant of the owl grew louder and then soft; lovers’ whispers sidled by, not very near. And then, beneath the ghostly refrain of music still drifting from the ballroom, she heard footsteps. They paused and picked up again, coming ever closer, ending at the stairs to the gazebo.
Well. That hadn’t taken long.
Leila didn’t bother to look up from her foot.
“No,” she said to her stocking toes. “He did not come.”
“I see,” said a deep, sardonic voice. “Shall I offer commiseration or felicitation?”
Her hands stilled. She exhaled a single breath, very shallow, and looked up—and yes—oh yes, curse it, it was he.
In the tame forest of the garden the man seemed much larger than before, almost imposing. The fading light should have softened him but instead had the opposite effect: black coat, black breeches and stockings and shoes; against the frilled white gazebo he was completely austere. Formidable. His gaze held hers and the same singular vertigo she had felt in the ballroom threatened.
With his long lashes and devil blue eyes, he seemed to see right through her, as if she were made of rice paper, or ice.
Leila forced her fingers to relax, tucking her feet beneath her. The air blew cool across her ankles. He seemed to notice; his lips kept the faintest smile.
“Neither, I should think,” she said, with more assurance than she felt. “He will come soon.”
The smile vanished. “Madam. Forgive me.” The man looked down. “Perhaps you dropped this on the path?”
Her fan. She looked at it cradled in his hands. Her heart began to beat harder.
“Yes. Thank you,” she said, and held out her open palm.
He hesitated, then unfurled it. “A most unusual design.” The feathers nodded and waved. He turned and held them up to the light, ignoring her hand. One lean finger found the steel spine inserted in the center; he touched it cautiously, a bare prick.
It would draw blood. She had filed the point herself.
He glanced back at her, his brows lifted.
“It is the fashion in Spain,” she said steadily.
“Spain,” he murmured, and the smile returned.
“To guard against scoundrels.”
“Of course.” He closed it gently. “What is a lady without her fan?”
“Sadly defenseless,” Leila said, and stood up to take it from his hand. “I thank you again, sir. Good evening.”
But he was blocking the exit and showed no inclination to do otherwise, only stood there with his taut smile and a slanting, sideways look, watching her as if he expected her to say or do something more. The breeze settled just as the moon broke free of the clouds, rising ivory over the breadth of his shoulders. He was haloed in light, wild and plain and handsome at once, focused entirely on her. Leila felt, amazingly, a flush begin to creep up her throat.
Don’t look at him. Walk away. Leave before Che comes.
But she did not.
“My name is MacMhuirich,” said the man simply, when she did not speak or move or go. “Ronan MacMhuirich.”
“MacMurray,” he repeated carefully, giving the word a sort of musical note. He waited, then prompted, “And you are?”
She knew what to do now, at least. Leila lifted her hand. “Doña Montiago y Luz.”
He took her gloved fingers, bowing over them with full formality. She could see him more clearly now, with the moon through the trees; his coat stretched tight across his back, the black ribbon of his queue tied to a short, neat knot. His fingers pressed very lightly on hers, steady and firm, and she had the impression that this was his will more than his way; nothing about him spoke of the languor of an indoor gentleman.
“How do you do,” he said in that marvelous low voice.
“How do you do,” she echoed, soft.
The night seemed to grow very quiet. Clouds blew high above them in silent silver tumbles. Even the owl had ceased his plaintive song.
Leila wished, abruptly, that she was not wearing gloves. That she could feel the warmth of his skin against hers.
Wouldn’t that make a mess of her evening?
The man straightened, releasing her hand. She took a step back, uneasy with herself, and him, and the sudden hush of the world. Where was Che?
“Are you a friend of the duke?” she heard herself ask.
“The duchess, then,” she said, with a curious little twist to her heart.
He offered nothing further; nor did he move away. Leila felt her flush inch higher. To disguise it she concentrated on slipping her wrist through the loop of her fan, closing her fingers around the reassuring comfort of feathers and steel. With her head bowed her eyes went to his hands, to the straight pale slash of his cuffs, distinct against his coat. His fingers laced together to form a loose cup; he appeared to be holding the starlight, letting it spill around them both.
When Leila looked up again, his expression was harder, darker; it seemed to steal her very breath. Their eyes held.
For a moment—a brief, dangerous moment—she let her imagination fly.
Ojalá—oh, how I wish....
“And you,” he asked. “Do you know Honorine?”
She blinked, and spoke the lines she had rehearsed. “We have a mutual friend. The duke and duchess were kind enough to include me in their festivities. I do not know many people in England.”
“How fortunate,” said the man, cryptic. “And you traveled all the way from Spain to attend their delightful ball?”
“I am here on tour.”
“With your husband?” he asked blandly.
“I fear I will be missed,” Leila said. “Pray excuse me.”
She wondered if he would let her pass; she walked boldly forward and she thought he might actually let her bounce into him. But he stood back in time, bowing again, not quite so deep as before. The scent of him rose with the breeze, fresh and unexpected, not perfume but something different, something pure and strong and bright.
The ocean, she realized. He smelled of the ocean.
“Madam,” he called, as she reached the bottom step.
Leila looked back.
Ronan MacMhuirich said, with great gravity, “I believe you have forgotten your shoes,” and held them up dangling by their heels.
Excerpted from The Last Mermaid by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2004 by Shana Abé. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.