Chapter 1: Her Master's Wedding, Part 1, The Dream

1297 Words

JAMES

Pain....

Blinding, shrieking, unholy agony....

Screaming....

My Jade-Eyes screaming....

Blood....

Pain....

Screaming.

My Jade, weeping....

With a gasp, I rear up, blinking into darkness.

A nightmare....

Just a nightmare....

Beside me in the bed, my flame-haired mermaid, safe and sound, sleeps peacefully. Beyond her: Michael, his chest rising and falling in the steady rhythm of sleep.

Everything is fine. Everything is perfectly normal.

But I'm drenched in sweat, my heart hammers behind my ribs and my breathing snatches. The wound in my thigh throbs a slow, heated beat.

And for the first time, the memory surfaces, how I took the wound.

Corby, his gun trained on Charlotte. Michael, flinging himself bodily at the gunman in a desperate bid to prevent the shot. And looking for refuge, finding none, I seize her, shielding her with my body....

Pain....

Shrieking unbearable agony....

..... And a fall into darkness....

Christ!

I check the time; it's hours after midnight; getting late enough almost to be early.

I have no desire to sleep, to risk being dragged back into that nightmare.

Coffee....

Swinging out of bed, I snag a robe and pad downstairs to the kitchen. The renovations are all but complete now and the house is cosy and comfortable. A couple of weeks ago we moved out of the annex we first occupied, but I still haven't grown used to the feeling of 'home' here.

Home....

I understand why Charlotte so yearned for a home of her own. Dispossessed for most of her life, with nothing to call her own, this has been Michael's gift to her, the most precious thing he knew how to give to her. He has put heart and body and soul into it....

.... Not to mention a thumping great mortgage....

.... Which he can barely afford....

But for myself too, it has become home. Divorced so many years ago now, from a marriage which I never understood at the time was so unsuccessful. Only when I met my Jade-Eyes, did I truly understand what it meant to be bonded with another.

And I would do anything for her....

Anything....

In the kitchen, the homely activities of grinding beans, putting the coffeemaker on the hob, calm me....

.... calm me enough that I begin to think clearly about the memory that has just re-emerged. Everyone... Michael... Richard... Beth... has told me how I was injured, that I placed myself in the path of the bullet intended for Charlotte, but it felt like a story or a news report; something that happened to a stranger. A tale from the tv or social media perhaps.

This feels visceral...

Real....

And my stomach clenches at the memory of that searing moment before I lost consciousness.

I squeeze my eyes tight closed, trying to exorcise the thought.

Then the aroma of the coffee invades my nostrils and reality returns.

I take a couple of large gulps of the brew I deliberately made abrasively strong, then, mug in hand, I head outside, inhaling sweet steam as I walk.

The night is an iced hush; early Spring, with the air cold enough to steal my breath into curling clouds, and with the kiss of frost on the ground. But a golden wedge of moon casts over the lake far below, and the water is full of stars.

And slowly, my heart and breathing slow, and I grow still inside.

*****

JAMES - LATER

Richard joins me in the kitchen, peering over my work surface and hob, where onions and mince sizzle with the spices. "What are we having?"

"Chilli con Carne."

"Sounds good. Want some help?"

"No, I'm fine. I enjoy cooking."

"I'll rephrase that. Do you mind if I join you? It's getting a little heated in there."

"Join me by all means." I nod across to the bottle. "Help yourself to a drink. Problem?"

Richard examines the label, Hmmms, then pours himself a glass of wine. "Um, not a problem exactly. But I think when Michael accepted my investment in his spa hotel, he thought I'd be a sleeping partner."

"And...?"

"If you recall, I had the investment made in Elizabeth's name, and she definitely wants to have an input."

I pause from chopping chillies as the humour creeps over me.

Of course, he's used to running everything himself....

When I invested in Michael's business, I was a silent partner....

But Beth wants to be involved....

I chuckle, rubbing at the side of my nose, then immediately regret it....

Ahhh... s**t!

Chillies....

Quickly I wash hands, then pour a little oil on a paper towel. Eyes watering, I dab at my face, trying to rub away the chilli oil as Richard watches in silent amusement.

Then, "Sure you don't want any help?"

"Yes, sure. I'm all but done."

Tipping beans and chillies into the pan with the meat and onions, I glug in tomato puree and the rest of the wine, then clap the lid on tight. "That'll be ready in a couple of hours."

I grin. "Let's see how Michael's bearing up under the strain, shall we?"

*****

Michael's eyes are glazing. Doubt in his voice, sitting over a table-top of rosters and timetables, "We've never done anything like that before, Beth."

"And that's a reason for not doing it now?" The normally placid Beth sounds almost strident.

So, she's a sub, is she?

Michael turns for support. "What do you think, Charlotte?"

The support isn't forthcoming. "Sounds like a great idea to me." Charlotte's eyes sparkle. "The boxing I used to do gives you a really good workout. And at the end of it, you know a bit about how to look after yourself."

"But... Self-defence?" Michael rakes through his hair. "It doesn't sound like the kind of thing your friends would want to do, Beth."

Beth shrugs, unimpressed. "You might be surprised. Most women would like to be able to at least have a shot at protecting themselves. But somehow, it's not always seen as something they should work at."

Outrage surges over Michael's face. "That's because it's our job," he protests. "That's what men are here for. To protect the women they care about."

"And if you're not around?" Beth's look is pointed. "At the risk of stating the obvious, it was a woman who got me out of trouble last time." She rolls eyes to Charlotte.

Michael holds up outspread hands. "Okay, you win. Self-defence classes go on the roster. But I'll have to find some extra staff first. I've no one trained in anything like that...."

Next to me, Richard stirs. "Why not use Charlotte?" His face is suspiciously straight. "You'd be willing to help, Charlotte, wouldn't you?"

Michael gives him a hard stare, but our mermaid returns one of her jade-eyed smiles. "Of course I would. What are we talking about? A couple of hours a week to get it off the ground? And take it from there?"

"Sounds about right," agrees Beth. "That's settled then." She turns back to Michael. "So, if we fit it in here in the morning...." With one long, immaculately painted nail, she taps at a spot on the timetables. "...That would leave the later parts of the day for the clientele to lunch first, then have sauna and spa, massage and all the rest of it. And we'd get them in for the whole day instead of just half a day. All else being equal, that should bring in twice the money."

Michael chews a lip, nodding slowly. "You've thought this through, I can see."

Richard claps a hand on his shoulder. "You might remember that Elizabeth's original role in my company was as a trainee in Business Studies."

Not just a pretty face....

Memo to self: never underestimate a woman just because she's attractive.

*****

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