Tidal Rush (Octopian Shifters Book 3)

The origin and existence of the octopians are a secret Celeste’s people have killed to protect, but the Black Dove’s first mate looks at Celeste like he knows what she really is…and wants her anyway.


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Chapter One

Captain Fitzgerald was not himself, no matter what he said. Joey Carrigan, first mate on the Black Dove, had known him long enough to read his tells. He wasn’t limping now, not like he’d been while they were in Port Townsend, but his face was pinched and pale, and his eyes were tired and sad. 

His broad shoulders were hunched forward under his greatcoat, and he looked cold and miserable. Like he’d given up the attempt to appear calm and confident before his crew as no longer worth the effort. 

Joey knew the cause of the captain’s misery. Or, at least the most obvious cause. They’d left Mr. Elliot behind in Port Townsend, and the next supermoon was next week. Mr. Elliot would shift, and Captain Fitz wouldn’t be there for him. 

Joey tried not to think too much about what his captain got up to with his half-devilfish lover during the supermoon, but he’d caught a glimpse of Mr. Elliot’s tentacles last year when they’d rescued the captain from the devilfish women’s den. 

He poured coffee into a lidded pewter mug and made his way from the ship’s small galley to the aft quarterdeck. The captain was toying with that copper compass when Joey came up the steps to the quarterdeck. The one Mr. Elliot had used to navigate to the devilfish women’s den last year. 

Damnest thing Joey’d ever seen. The needle pointed west, rather than north, when they were out on the ocean. They were sailing to Mam’s compound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but maybe the captain was planning to go back there after. 

“Thanks, Jo-Jo,” Captain Fitz said, when Joey handed him the mug. 

“You know I hate that.” He added a respectful “Captain,” but his reproach was half-hearted. Captain Fitz had bestowed the nickname almost when they first met, and Joey knew he’d never quit. At least he didn’t call Joey by his birth name. 

Joey stayed on the quarterdeck for a bit while the captain drank his coffee and steered the Black Dove. They’d reach Mam’s inlet by late afternoon, and Joey felt that mixture of love and frustrated longing he always felt when going home. 

“Looking forward to seeing your mam?” Captain Fitz asked in that uncanny way he sometimes had of reading Joey’s thoughts. 

Joey made a face, but smoothed it when the captain glanced at him. Captain Fitz would brook no disrespect to his mam any more than he would to himself. “Suppose so,” Joey said. 

“Things were better during our last visit, weren’t they?”

“Suppose so,” Joey said again. They had been, somewhat. Mam had made an effort to treat him like any other sailor. “Just kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, I guess.”

“Give her some credit,” Captain Fitz said. “You never thought she’d come ‘round this far, did you? She calls you by the right name now, don’t she?”

“Not like some people,” Joey said without thinking, but the captain only chuckled. 

“Everyone needs a nickname,” he said. “And you don’t get to pick it yourself.” 

“She’s trying,” Joey said after a moment. “I see that. Mostly ‘cause of you.” He scuffed his shoe against the deck’s wide planks. “I never thanked you for that, Captain.” He hoped someday to find a way to repay his captain for everything he’d done for him, but he doubted he’d ever be able to.

“No need,” Captain Fitz said gruffly, then took a sip of coffee. “You know she loves you. She just wants to keep her baby safe.”

“Not a baby,” Joey retorted. He didn’t need his mam’s protection anymore. Certainly not if it came with the refusal to accept him the way he was. 

“She’d have come around eventually with or without me.”

Joey wasn’t so sure. “She didn’t have no trouble accepting Mr. Elliot. But that was more about Aunt Charlotte, I think.” 

“Aunt Charlotte?” Captain Fitz had been coming to Mam’s compound since Joey was small, and the senior Captain Fitzgerald for even longer, but maybe he hadn’t known about Mam’s sister.

Joey hadn’t known her, either—she’d died before he was born—but he’d heard sailors gossiping in the bunk house about her before he’d stowed away on the Black Dove. He told the captain about some of it. 

“Lately, I been thinking she was maybe like Mr. Elliot.” Captain Fitz didn’t acknowledge this, but Joey pressed on. “Mr. Elliot all right? How’s he gonna get through the supermoon without you?”

The captain coughed around a sip of coffee, and Joey pounded on his back until he waved him away. 

“For fuck’s sake, Joey, that’s none of your goddamn business.” 

“Sorry, Captain.” Risking his ire, Joey continued. “I just…” 

He glanced at the captain, then turned his gaze to the mainsheet snapping in the wind. He had to get this out. 

“Just, you’re always taking care of everyone. Like me, or Mr. Elliot, with whatever we got wrong with us. Or when we’re hurting some way. And I heard you were sick for a few days after the last supermoon.” 

One of the housemaids at the Bishop house had told the Landes’s gardener, who’d mentioned in a card game at the Green Light saloon, that Captain Fitz had been laid up in bed for days last month. And he’d had that trouble when they’d been unloading hooch from the cave where they’d stored it the night they arrived in Port Townsend. 

The captain cleared his throat and his hands tightened on the ship’s wheel. He’d brushed off Joey’s and Thomas’s concern then, but Joey would have it out with him now, no matter how uncomfortable it made them both.

“I just think someone oughta take care of you sometimes, when you hurt.” Joey didn’t have the balls to look directly at the captain, and picked at a crusted patch of sea spray on the tail of his coat. 

A warm hand landed on the back of his neck and squeezed gently. “That’s kind of you, lad, but I’m fine.” The hand went away and the captain cleared his throat again. “Mr. Elliot and I will figure it out. Nothing for you to worry about.”

Joey nodded. “You gonna talk to Mam about it?” He was pushing his luck and he knew it, but the captain had to know that he had options. 

“Guess so.” 

“Or are we going back to that island with the devilfish women? Reginald and me caught a few glimpses of them swimming around the ship when Mr. Elliot and your father was inside that cave. They didn’t bother us none, but some of them were real pretty.” 

He wondered idly what it would be like to be with one of those women. Not that any of them would want him, considering the way he was.

Captain Fitz said he’d find someone someday. A nice girl, not a dockside whore that he’d have to pay extra to be with him. He loved the Black Dove’s crew, and the ship was his home. Sailing with Captain Fitz was all the adventure he’d dreamt of when he was small and couldn’t wait to leave Mam’s house to become the man he knew he could be. 

But someday, it might be nice to settle down. Marry, build a house for a wife. Not as big as Mr. Elliot’s house, but nearby, perhaps. Uptown, with a view of Port Townsend Bay from the upstairs windows, and a bed with a woman who loved him the way he was.

“Not if I can get some answers from your mam,” Captain Fitz said. “I’m done talking about this with you, though. I appreciate that you care about me, but it’s my business, aye?”

Joey recognized he’d pushed his captain as far as he dared. “Aye, Captain.” 

He glanced over his shoulder. Dense white clouds were billowing toward them, hiding the bit of Vancouver Island that had been visible most of the day. “Fog rolling in from the southeast, Captain. Think we can outrun it?”

The captain turned to look for himself, then turned back and eyed the wind filling the mainsheet. “Better try,” he said.

Chapter Two

Joey had three of a kind, which wasn’t the worst poker hand he’d ever had, but he was playing against Reggie, and somehow Reg always had the better hand. The Black Dove had arrived at Mam’s trading compound a few days ago, after an uncanny encounter with giant devilfish in thick fog, and the crew had been killing time since.

Seemed like Captain Fitz hadn’t talked to Mam so far about what they’d come to discuss with her. He did business with the other traders, bathed in the hot spring, and drank with Mam in the evenings. Moped around in between, playing with that copper compass when he thought no one was looking. The one Mr. Elliot Bishop had used to navigate to the devilfish women’s den last year. They’d left Mr. Elliot in Port Townsend for this journey, even though the supermoon was three days away. 

Reg tossed his bet into the pot, and Joey called. Seamus had already folded on the first round, and now Luca dropped out, too. 

But before Reg showed his hand, the door opened, and half a dozen women filed into the bunkhouse. 

“Hey,” Reg protested, even as all four of them scrambled to their feet. “No women allowed in here. Y’all missed the turn up to the big house? It ain’t hard to find.”

The women paused and swiveled their heads to look at Reggie. All of an accord like that. It was uncanny. They had identical looks of impatience with a tinge of hostility on their faces, and Reg swallowed whatever else he was about to say. 

The women all wore wide-legged trousers and loose shirts, and most had a wool coat as well, either wearing it or draped over an arm. Each also had a duffle slung over her shoulder, and the wind-blown hair and sun-tanned faces that Joey recognized among his own crew members. 

The women stared at Reggie, then looked at Seamus, Luca, and Joey in turn. Luca muttered some French epithet under his breath, but Seamus and Joey kept quiet. They carried themselves like sailors, despite their sex, and when they seemed satisfied that Reg and Luca had nothing further to say to them, they marched down the length of the bunkhouse to the far end.

One by one, each claimed a bunk for herself, tossed her duffle next to it, and stretched out along the narrow berth. Within minutes, a cacophony of snores filled the bunkhouse that rivaled what Reggie and Seamus could put out. 

Luca and Seamus looked at each other and shrugged, then clambered into their own bunks to nap as well, even though it was midmorning. Joey eyed Reg, who also shrugged, then turned over his cards to reveal the straight flush he’d somehow got and swiped the pot into the palm of his broad hand. 

At least they were playing for small coins this time. Last time Joey’d lost big to Reggie, he’d had to scrub the Black Dove’s deck and scrape the barnacles off the hull in the same goddamned afternoon, and the blisters on his hands had taken a week to heal.

Reg jerked his chin at the door, and Joey nodded. Wasn’t no point in hanging round the bunkhouse with this racket. Might as well stretch his legs. Maybe he’d go to the hot spring for a soak.

A few steps outside the bunkhouse and Reggie pulled up short, causing Joey to run into his broad back. He stepped around the giant man and went to pass him, but Reg grabbed his arm. 

“The hell, Reg? Let go.”

“What’s he doing then, talking to her?” 

Joey followed Reggie’s gaze down the path to the long pier, where a steamship was docked. She had two masts, brigantine-rigged, and a smokestack amidships, a thin trail of white smoke dissipating into the air. A right mess of trawl nets, dredges, and tangles sprawled all over the deck and dangled over her sides. Seemed more than necessary for a fishing vessel, like the crew hadn’t decided what they were after and brought along everything that might catch anything. 

Mam was on the dock alongside the steamship, talking to a tall woman with dark hair, parted in the middle and plaited into a pair of thick braids that reached to her waist. So was Captain Fitz. 

“Who’s she?” Joey asked.

Reg let go of Joey’s arm. “Saw her last year. Night before Captain Fitz disappeared. You remember?”

Joey remembered. He remembered searching the inlet, the hot spring, all the places the captain liked to wander when he went off by himself. And then having to tell Mr. Elliot that they couldn’t find him. Mr. Elliot’s face had gone white, and his lips had thinned. He was a quiet man, a gentleman, and Joey’d never seen him raise a hand to anyone. 

And yet, he’d felt a wave of cold fear wash over him at Mr. Elliot’s expression. Joey’d seen enough of the captain and Mr. Elliot together that he didn’t want to be the one standing between them. 

“You saw her? Here? What was she doing?”

Reg looked sideways at him. “Talking to your mam.”

Joey looked back and forth between the tall woman with the braids and his mam. They looked like they knew each other. Captain Fitz seemed to recognize her, too, though he didn’t look at her as friendly-like as Mam did.

“Talking to Mam?” 

Reg nodded. “Saw ‘em in the library, through them big picture windows. Looked kinda cozy together, sitting side by side on one of them short sofas.”

Joey was having trouble crediting this. “And?” 

“And,” Reggie said, “Recall what Luca said he saw that night?” 

Shit. “The eight-masted schooner that Captain Fitz and Mr. Bishop were looking for last year.”

Reg nodded again.

“And you think…?” Joey prompted. 

Reggie was taciturn at the best of times, except when he was relaying orders to the deck crew, which tended to be sandwiched between booming castigations about their sloppiness, laziness, incompetence, and colorful insults about the origins of their parentage and those of their wives, lovers, and dogs. 

The crew was solid and skilled, and most of them had neither wives nor dogs, so they generally ignored Reg’s mismatched streams of imprecations he didn’t really mean. But to get him to be serious for once and volunteer information without dragging it out of him in fits and starts? Fuck, Joey lacked the patience Captain Fitz usually showed in circumstances like these. 

“Spit it out, Reg,” he finally ordered. 

“Bet that gal was on that cursed schooner, that’s all. The one what took Captain Fitz last year. The one we chased to hell and back.”

To a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the Black Dove, captained nominally by Fitz’s father, the elder Captain Fitzgerald, who none of the Black Dove’s crew would take orders from. It was Mr. Elliot who’d steered them there, using that strange copper compass that Captain Fitz had been playing with since they left Mr. Elliot in Port Townsend. 

Where Mr. Elliot had rescued the Captain from the lady devilfish that lived there. The ones that looked like women up top but had tentacles down below and swam like the octopuses that sometimes trailed the Black Dove. They hadn’t interfered with the crew while they waited for Captain Fitz and Mr. Elliot to return, but they’d surrounded the ship and stared at them unnervingly until they had. 

And then another woman disembarked from the steamship. A lady, dressed in a brown velvet and gold silk walking dress, and something about her seemed familiar to Joey. She exchanged words with the captain, who clearly knew her, and then she left, headed for the big house. 

The tall woman with the braids nodded at Captain Fitz, then Mam and the other lady, and headed up the pier for the bunkhouse. 

“Wonder what the hell they’re here for?” Reg mused.

Chapter Three

“What are we doing here?” Celeste had come aboard the Albatross to feed the creatures in her observation tanks and found Enid leaning against the rail, gazing toward Nance’s house. 

Enid shrugged. “I like Nance.” 

Which hardly answered Celeste’s question. 

“Charlotte’s sister,” Enid said, also a non sequitur. And then, at Celeste’s questioning look, “Before you.”

Ah. Celeste cast into the interconnected web of consciousness all octopians shared and found Enid’s recollections of a pretty girl with dark, laughing eyes and a vibrant personality. Considerably younger than Nance, at least in Enid’s memory. They shared certain features—the shape of their noses and the roundness of their cheeks—but otherwise Nance bore little resemblance to this sister. 

 “Nance seems like a nice woman,” Celeste offered, which caused Enid to give what passed for her as a smile. 

“She’s not,” Enid said. “Why I like her.” 

“And you like her enough to spend the supermoon here?” 

The supermoon was tomorrow night, and she and the other octopian women—including Enid—were already simmering in desires they could barely control. Celeste knew they would not make it back to the octopians’ den in time, but had put off thinking what that would mean, in terms of finding partners. 

Enid shrugged again. “Sailors here, too.” 

Willing partners, she meant.

“Yes, Captain Fitzgerald’s crew,” Celeste said. “Did you know he was here?” 

The last time she’d seen Declan Fitzgerald, they’d not parted on the best of terms. Well, he’d not displayed any overt hostility, but his lover, Elliot Bishop, Celeste’s former fiancé, certainly had. Celeste could still feel the horror Elliot had felt when he learned of his mother’s plans for them.

Enid shrugged a third time. Celeste was not as adept as Enid at the nonverbal communication the octopians shared, while Enid had been relying primarily on it for long enough that she’d lost many of her English words. Which made talking with Enid an exercise in slow frustration, at least for Celeste. 

“He was closer.” 

“Closer than whom?” 

Enid projected a flash of a figure Celeste had no trouble recognizing. She stared at Enid. 

“We let him go.” 

“Marie says he’ll come back.”

“He won’t.” Celeste infused all of her certainty into her voice and the thread of connection between them. “Not to us.”

“Did before.” 

“Because you kidnapped Captain Fitzgerald.” Celeste’s patience with dragging information out of Enid was fraying. “You drugged him and stole him away…” She looked around the inlet, recognizing the big house and the long pier from Enid’s memories of last year. “From this place, no less.”

The unholy glee that suffused Enid was no less disturbing for being familiar. Enid had little use for human men, and Captain Fitzgerald had survived his encounter with her unscathed only because he’d been useful to Marie. The Albatross’s first crew had not been so lucky. 

When the science vessel had ventured too close to the octopians’ home and caught one of their own in her shifted form in its trawl net, Enid and her squad surrounded the ship, swarmed over its sides, subdued the crew, taken their pleasure from a handful of willing sailors, then slit their throats and tossed their bodies overboard. 

 “And then you dropped the poor man in the middle of our home and left me to provide the explanations,” Celeste continued. 

“And then Marie’s son came to us.” 

Celeste blew an impatient breath out. “Not for us, Enid. For him.” She gestured at the big house, where Captain Fitzgerald was probably still breakfasting with Nance. “Elliot came to retrieve his lover. He didn’t come for me or you or his mother. And he rejected Marie’s plan without a second thought.” 

It stung a little still. Even though Celeste had been the one to break their betrothal. She’d abandoned Elliot the night before they were to marry, left his house on Port Townsend’s uptown bluff with no warning, no note, no explanation. Left her mother to grieve her disappearance during a storm in the middle of the night. Left school friends and church acquaintances and everything familiar and safe about her life from before. 

But the horror and disgust on his face when he’d realized what Marie wanted from him cast prickles of shame over Celeste, even now. Shame that she knew Enid scorned as a pathetic vestige of the human life she’d left behind, but Enid was older than Celeste. She wasn’t sure how much older, but she’d been part of the octopian collective decades longer than Elliot’s mother, despite what her appearance of a woman in her mid-twenties suggested.

“He’s the key.” Enid’s voice was placid, but then, she wasn’t the one expected to fulfill Marie’s plan with Elliot. 

“Perhaps he might have been, but it’s too late now.” Elliot hadn’t been Celeste’s great love, even when she’d agreed to marry him. She’d known she wasn’t his, either. Friendship and mutual respect were the foundation for many a happy marriage, though, and when Elliot had proposed, it seemed like a good idea to accept. 

She’d been willing to do her duty and provide him with a pleasant home and children. But then Elliot’s stepbrother returned, and the octopians came for Celeste, and she’d left everything about her life on land without a backward glance. 

“He’s not with this one now.” Enid’s chin lifted toward the big house. 

Celeste saw a flash of Elliot, sitting in his study in the Bishop house, reading. Pretending to read, rather, because his eyes weren’t on the pages of the book. He sat there, mired in loneliness and desperation, bleakly letting wave after wave flood through him. 

It was agony to feel his pain through their octopian connection, especially since Celeste still cared about Elliot, and wished no ill on him. “Stop,” she whispered. “Leave him alone.” 

Enid shut down the connection. “His choice,” she said. “Doesn’t have to be this way.”

The front door to the big house opened and Captain Fitzgerald stepped through it, a mug of coffee in one hand and a folded newspaper under his arm. He settled himself in a chair on the front porch and unfolded the paper, but, just like Elliot, did not appear to be reading it. 

Celeste didn’t need the connection she shared with Elliot to read Captain Fitzgerald. He’d been pleasant enough to her and Nance at meals these last few days, but not much of a conversationalist. The few times he’d smiled, it hadn’t reached his eyes. A far cry from the charming, gregarious fellow she’d met last year.

He was as miserable as his lover was, the two separated yet yearning toward each other, and the imminent supermoon was surely exacerbating their joint despair. 

“Whatever reasons Elliot has for being apart from him now are his own,” Celeste said. “It doesn’t mean he’ll come to us.”

Enid snorted. “We’ll see.” 

They stood quietly at the rail for a few moments. 

A young man came around the corner of the big house and paused at the end of the porch to hail the captain. He looked over his shoulder with an almost guilty air, like a child checking on whether he was being watched, and jogged up the steps to the porch. 

“Who is that?” Celeste asked Enid. 

“Nance’s child.” 

Declan straightened in his chair when the young man approached him, donning the same mantle of relaxed confidence and authority he’d been wearing with such discomfort at meals since Celeste had arrived. They exchanged a few words that Celeste and Enid were too far away to hear, but the young man also seemed less than convinced of the captain’s act. 

“Do you know his name?” There was something appealing to Celeste about the young man, even from this distance. 

Enid looked thoughtful, for once. “Joseph…” she said slowly, like she was sounding out the word. “Something like that. Nance used a different name before. So did Charlotte.” She shrugged and turned her back on the shore, leaned against the rail and lifted her face to the sky. “Not one of us.”

And Enid’s attention span for anything unrelated to octopians was extremely limited. 

“Is Nance one of us?” Celeste asked. She didn’t feel the same connection with Nance that she felt with Enid and the other octopians, but Nance knew about them and was still alive. 

“Nah,” Enid said. “But Charlotte said look after her.” 

Declan clapped the young man on the shoulder and shooed him off. Joseph sketched a salute, then turned and jogged down the porch steps, taking a faint path away from the big house and the inlet. He disappeared around a bend, and Captain Fitzgerald gathered his coffee mug and paper and went back inside the house. 

“I think I’ll go for a swim,” Celeste finally said. 

Enid grunted an acknowledgement, and Celeste went to head to her cabin next to the upper laboratory. She had a thought, and turned back to Enid. “What happened to Charlotte?” 

“Killed herself.” 

“Oh, dear,” Celeste said. “Why?”

Enid made a face. “She loved a man. He died.” She shrugged again. “Fool.”

Chapter Four

Celeste hustled to her cabin to change into the loose gown she used for swimming, then returned to the main deck. Enid had disappeared, and the other octopian crew members were off somewhere, engaging in activities Celeste would rather not dwell on. 

She threw a leg over the port rail near the bow so she’d be well clear of the steamship’s propellers, and let herself splash feet first into the water. 

The frigid water was a shock at first, and her robe billowed up around her bosom as she sunk. Her lower half transformed, the bones in her pelvis dissolving and her skin widening into the umbrella-like web that connected her upper half to the tentacles her legs split into. Some octopians shifted only during the supermoon, and some had trouble shifting back, but Celeste had learned from Enid and Marie the trick of shifting at will. 

The curiosity of the sensation when she changed never dimmed. It came with a release of tension—a little like removing her corset at the end of a long day—but also with a rush of thrilling sexual heat. Shifting during the supermoon was even more exhilarating. 

Celeste bunched her powerful tentacles together and shot away from the ship to explore the life surrounding it. A school of sardines scattered before her, their silvery scales flashing in the light filtering dimly through the watery depths. Celeste dived, angling toward the mouth of the inlet to get clearance from the ships dotting the small harbor, resting at anchor a few yards from shore. 

The slits on either side of her neck opened and fluttered slightly. She still needed oxygen to breathe, but in her shifted form, her lungs retained more of the oxygen she’d taken in that first deep breath before submerging. The tiny gill slits in her neck took in supplemental oxygen to allow her to stay underwater longer than she could in her fully human form.

She swam through tall, waving strands of kelp, admiring the varieties of snails and crustaceans clinging to the fronds and branches. It had been her idea to take over the Albatross, rather than sinking it, and to put its tools and equipment to her own use. Enid took charge of running the ship, with her experienced crew of octopian sailors, and under Celeste’s direction, they’d mapped the ocean floor surrounding the octopians’ den. 

The crew obliged Celeste’s efforts to collect marine specimens using the trawls, dredges, tow nets, tangles, and other devices the men who’d outfitted the ship had accumulated. But no one else was as interested as Celeste in cataloging and observing the creatures in her observation tanks, or in recording the details of morphology and taxonomy that the Albatross’s original scientists started. 

And there was still nothing like observing these creatures in their natural habitats. The invertebrates, in particular, were challenging to collect, as the trawls and dredges tended to damage their soft bodies. 

Celeste cast her eyes back and forth among the kelp forest. There—to her right—a pale yellow slug-like creature clung to a blade of kelp. She paused to watch the creature’s large hood open wide, its fringe of short tentacles wiggling while the hood waved from side to side and downward. 

The creature’s hood swept tiny crustaceans and plankton into it, and then closed into a small knob, locking the food in. Celeste swam closer and gently reached to hold the kelp stalk steady with one hand. Dozens of these Melibe leonina were waving their hoods among the kelp strands. The population was sufficient to spare a specimen or two for her observation tanks, if only she’d brought something to transport them back to her laboratory.

 She left the lion’s mane nudibranchs to continue their meals and swam through schools of fish darting and swirling around her, past jellies bobbing and floating in masses so thick she couldn’t see through their translucent bodies. She angled closer to a line of submerged rocky cliffs and traced her fingers over the colorful sponges, sea urchins, and anemones clinging to the rocks.

Until she needed to return to the surface for more air. She bunched her tentacles beneath her and thrust upwards, reaching the surface in less time than it had taken to swim down to the sea floor. Her head broke through the water and she took a deep breath in, then looked around. She’d swum farther away from the Albatross than she’d realized, and it was nowhere in sight.

She was near shore, though. A short, sandy beach nestled next to a rock ledge that jutted into the ocean. The tide was high, and the ledge’s rocky surface barely cleared the waterline. Celeste took another deep breath and submerged to head back to the Albatross. She glanced toward the ledge and noted it formed the roof of a series of sea caves. 

Perhaps she’d return to this spot another time to explore and gather more specimens to study.

For now, she surfaced to grab one more breath for the long swim back to the Albatross—and heard a shout from the ledge. A man was standing on the edge, waving his arms and jumping up and down. 

Damnation. Enid would kill her if a human sailor saw her in her octopian form. Well, she’d kill the sailor first, but she wouldn’t be happy with Celeste. And it was far easier to convince Enid to accommodate Celeste’s scientific explorations when Enid was happy with her.

She’d swim away before the man on the ledge caught sight of her lower body. If he bothered to look for her washed-up body along the shore and failed to find it, he’d either assume she drowned or that he’d been mistaken that he’d seen her at all. 

Before she’d swum more than a couple of meters, a big splash behind her displaced a series of ripples that pushed her forward. Celeste dived to avoid the damned fool who thought she needed to be rescued. His arms and legs churned through the water, kicking and stroking in her direction. He was a decent swimmer, at least, which was unusual for a sailor. 

He’d give up soon, though, when he failed to find her and the cold water made him rethink his action. 

Except he didn’t give up. He kept diving and searching for her. He had to surface far more frequently than she did, of course, but he persisted. He swam farther and farther from shore. If he kept this up, he’d tire himself out and be unable to swim back for his own safety.

Celeste couldn’t watch him thrashing about any more. She swam up and allowed her head to break the surface at the same time he did. 

“Miss!” he gasped when he caught sight of her. “Hang on, miss, I’ll help you swim back.” 

He stretched an arm toward her. His lips were turning blue, and his legs were kicking less frantically. He was tiring and cold, his reactions slowed by the icy water. Celeste let him grasp her wrist, and he tugged at her weakly, then his head slipped below the surface. 

He kicked up once and cleared the water, sputtering and wheezing. Then he submerged again, and this time, his grip on her wrist threatened to drag her down too. 

There was nothing for it now. She had to save him. It would mean revealing what she was to a human, but she’d deal with that consequence after she got him to shore.

She detached his hand from her wrist and sidled alongside him, then draped his arm around her shoulders and wrapped her arm around his waist to keep his head above water. He was slighter than she’d thought, underneath his billowing shirt and waterlogged trousers, but had firm muscles packed over his slim chest and hips. She thrust with her tentacles and towed him to shore.   

She let go of him at the water’s edge, and he flopped on the beach like a landed fish, gasping and coughing water from his lungs. The undertow pulled at both of them, washing over their lower bodies and trying to suck them both back in. 

 “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “Go on up there and warm up in the sun.”

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