This was going to be her year. It had to be.
Maggie Collins washed her hands in the ladies’ room sink and looked at herself in the mirror. There was a buzzing in her purse. Quickly, she dried her hands and fumbled inside her handbag for her phone. She stared at the text from her boss, the city manager. The one that said My office. 5 mins.
Oh, shoot. I should have guessed I’d get the summons while in the john.
This was it. Darryl was finally going to announce that he’d been able to get her the promotion they’d been discussing. After all, he’d proposed it to city council weeks ago, but with the new mayor coming in, everything had been at a standstill. Every employee at city hall was talking about the hiring freeze, waiting for the day when it would be lifted.
Maggie had been patient.
She bolted out of the restroom, swinging her purse over her shoulder. There was such a spring in her step that her auburn spiral curls were bouncing along with her. As one of the errant curls danced in front of her eye, she tucked it behind her ear. She had to stop herself from smiling too widely or doing a fist pump. After all, a couple of admins had recently been let go in her division. It would be insensitive to beam unnecessarily over her impending good news.
But she was so ready for this.
Darryl had been grooming her for years. He’d seen potential in her when she’d taken her first admin role there as an intern and had backed her ever since, helping her reach the exalted heights of the city manager’s office, arguably the most important one aside from the mayor’s. And when he’d heard the mayor’s assistant was going on leave, he’d been quick to put Maggie’s name forward.
Yes. He’s going to tell me I got the job.
What else could he have to say to her on a Friday at four p.m.?
Maggie blinked, tucked another of her ever-straying curls behind her other ear, and smoothed down her best A-line skirt. And smiled. She was finally going to get some good news. And it was about time. With the way things had been the past couple of years, she needed it.
She turned a corner in the hallway, listening to the echoing clack of her pumps. Another few steps, and she was walking on the plush carpet leading to the city manager’s office. She made a quick pit stop at her desk and bent down to check herself again in her cubicle mirror, the one bearing the printed message Smile! She ran her tongue over her teeth. “No poppy seeds. No spinach. Check.”
With a wink at her signed fan pic of Ewan McGregor, she launched herself out of the cubicle and toward Darryl’s office.
She couldn’t wait to tell Matthew. Thank God for him. Her fiancé was her rock. He’d lifted her out of the doldrums and had given her something to hope for.
If only they’d been able to spend more quality time together lately. He’d been busy with his job, and she with hers. But that was to be expected. He was a busy professional, and her work kept her hopping. Once Darryl confirmed her new role, she’d head right over to Matthew’s office to tell him. They could celebrate.
Maybe even get a little frisky tonight. If he wasn’t too tired.
Cut the man some slack, Maggie. He works hard. It’s not his fault he doesn’t have enough energy to jump your bones more than once a month.
Frowning, Maggie dismissed the nagging voice in her head. It wasn’t time to worry about her lack of a sex life with the man who would soon be her husband. So they hadn’t been connecting on a physical level for a while. He loved her, told her often. Once they got over this rocky patch, things would improve.
Yes. Today was a good day and the start of an even better weekend. Now she just had to talk to her boss, sign on the dotted line, and bask in the glory for a while.
Trying not to bubble over with excitement, she practically skipped into Darryl’s office.
The door was already half-open. She heard hushed voices as she approached. Knocking gently, she poked her head around the open door.
Darryl didn’t look like a man who was about to award his hard-working employee with a promotion. In fact, he looked like he hadn’t slept for weeks. There was a definite, defeated slump to his shoulders and a tightness around his mouth. And he wasn’t alone. The HR manager was with him.
A bit excessive. Maybe they have to do this formally.
Darryl looked up and blanched. “Maggie. Come in.”
She did, and sat down, her gaze on Erica Ridley from HR. The older woman’s posture was so rigid she resembled more of an aging Russian ballet instructor than an HR executive. She’d always made Maggie nervous.
Erica blinked. “Thanks for coming, Maggie. I appreciate you meeting us.”
She let out a nervous giggle. “Forgive me. I didn’t realize I was meeting an ‘us.’”
For a moment, no one said anything. Maggie just waited for them to begin. She tried not to play with the hem on her skirt. Instead, she chewed the bronze Rimmel gloss off her lower lip.
Darryl looked as if he wanted the ground to swallow him whole. What was wrong with him? He was an authoritative, professional man. Maggie had never seen him so … in bits.
Luckily for him, Erica appeared more than willing to take charge. “Maggie. I regret to inform you that your position here has been made redundant.” She paused, letting that sink in.
She stared. “Redundant? You mean I’m not getting the promotion, right?”
“That’s not it, Maggie,” Erica clarified. “You’re being let go from your current position. And there is no promotion.”
Darryl muttered something under his breath. Maggie could have sworn he grumbled something about “HR shitheads.” Erica glared at him, her lips pursed.
Still convinced she’d heard the wrong thing, Maggie was trying really hard not to upchuck the sun-dried tomato bagel from her very late lunch. Because that would make a mess on her best skirt. “You’re firing me?”
“With the reorganizational changes being made, your position is simply not viable. You’ll be compensated, of course,” Erica continued, as cool as anyone who did this for a living, “and, as part of your benefits package, you’ll have the opportunity to work with one of our career-management counselors.”
Maggie stared down at the limp hands in her lap, not knowing what to do. She loved her job. Where was she supposed to go from here? It wasn’t as if a job such as hers could be found around every corner.
Suddenly, she really wanted to talk to Gran. Gran always had great words of wisdom.
She’d have to tell Matthew. God, he’d be crushed for her. As someone who spent so many hours at his own office, who was so devoted to his work, he’d understand the devastating sucker punch that was currently pummeling her gut.
She looked at Darryl. His face was white. She just knew from his expression that there wasn’t even any use fighting this. The deep crease between his brows and the bags under his eyes clearly said he had already been fighting this. He’d gone to bat for her, she could tell.
It was done. Over. Finito.
She wanted to wail. Wanted to say she was planning her yearly trip to visit her grandmother in Orkney and needed the money. Wanted to wipe the weird little grin off Erica Ridley’s face. But she didn’t do any of those things.
Instead, she decided to try and maintain her last shred of dignity, even though she had no idea how to go about it. Not once in her life had she ever been fired before. She was about to mumble something stupid about what a pleasure it had been to work there, when the door opened again. It was Mike from security, looking mighty awkward.
Maggie’s heart fell into her size seven patent pumps.
Oh no you’re not. She was not getting escorted out of here. It was fighting time.
“What about all the work I did on the launch of the 311 project? It’s been implemented because of my work. My overtime. The old mayor presented me with an award.”
“Mike here will walk you out,” Erica explained, her smile so unnatural it was practically a grimace. The woman stood and indicated the door just like damn Vanna White.
Mike touched Maggie’s elbow.
“No! I’m not going.” Maggie grabbed onto the edge of Darryl’s desk as he averted his eyes. “I trained every admin in this place. When people have questions, they come to me!”
“Maggie,” Erica cooed. “Let’s not make this any more difficult than it already is.”
“Difficult for you? My ass! I’m not leaving.”
From somewhere behind her, Maggie heard Mike call for backup. Within seconds, another security guard appeared. Sure, it was only white-haired Arnie, the guard closest to retirement, but it was still another guard. For a moment, she expected them to pepper spray her.
She looked at her boss. “Darryl?”
“I’m sorry, Maggie. There’s nothing I can do.”
Somehow, seeing the dark circles under his eyes, those perverse symbols of defeat, brought it all home. She stood, stunned, while Mike quietly cancelled the order for younger reinforcements.
Mortified, Maggie walked out with security, stopping only to grab her handbag and her Ewan McGregor photo. She didn’t touch her computer, didn’t close any open documents, or even turn off her office phone. They weren’t hers to touch anymore.
As she exited city hall for the last time, she wondered if she’d be given a reference from Darryl, but then realized she didn’t want one.
After all, she had no idea where to go next.
* * * *
Matthew. Matthew will know what to do. He’s an HR manager. He’ll have advice.
Her eyes stinging, she walked the two blocks to his office, not even seeing the crush of humanity on Queen Street. Barely noticing as a homeless guy jostled her while shooing away a pigeon in his path. She just stared straight ahead, wondering how her professional world could crumble so quickly.
She resisted kicking the revolving door leading into Matthew’s office high-rise. Tried to retain a sense of decorum as she punched his floor number in the elevator. Attempted to smile politely at the suits crammed into the elevator with her.
Even though she really wanted to hit somebody.
Rein it in, Maggie. Rein it in.
Breathing a sigh of relief as she finally reached the forty-third floor, Maggie marched into Matthew’s waiting area. It struck her as odd that his receptionist, Caitlyn, wasn’t at her post. She didn’t usually leave for the day this early. She tended to work late whenever Matthew needed help. Oh, well. Maybe Matthew didn’t have any more meetings that afternoon and had sent her home.
He was considerate that way. Why, he spent just about as much time mentoring Caitlyn as Darryl had spent mentoring her.
The door to Matthew’s office was slightly ajar. Inside, someone was moaning.
It wasn’t like Maggie to walk in without knocking. Normally, she prided herself on being polite to a fault. But something about that low, satisfied groan set her on edge.
She quietly pushed on the door to her fiancé’s office, letting it swing open.
For a moment, she just stared in wonder at the sight before her. It seemed ridiculous that she should have to confront this today of all days.
Matthew was in. Leaning against his desk, his handsome head thrown back in concentration. His knuckles were white as they gripped the mahogany wood.
Caitlyn was there, too. On her knees in front of him.
For one absurd second, Maggie wondered if Matthew’s fly might be stuck. And whether or not the receptionist was merely helping him unstick it. With her teeth.
But then she realized that even if that implausible scenario were true, there would be no need for Caitlyn to have her boss’s quickly deflating penis in her mouth.
Matthew looked up, his blue eyes bugging out and his mouth hanging open. He couldn’t have looked more shocked if Darth Vader had entered the room wielding a light saber, claiming to be his long lost father.
“Oh my God, Maggie,” he cried, brushing Caitlyn away from him as if she were a stubborn piece of lint clinging to his lap. “It’s not what it seems!”
Maggie clapped her jaw shut and forced herself to look away from the appendage that Matthew had barely let her touch for the last six months. She resumed eye contact. “You’re busy,” she murmured, amazed at how mental she sounded. “I, uh, just came to tell you I was fired today.”
And then she stared as Caitlyn wiped her mouth, slowly getting up off the floor. A bizarre frisson of vengeance rippled through her as she spied the run in the other woman’s pantyhose.
Getting sexed up on your knees at work will do that.
“You,” she said to the receptionist. “I baked you muffins.”
“Maggie,” Matthew spluttered, as remorse and embarrassment grappled for dominance in his eyes. “Please. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He nodded, pale in his mortification.
“Just a little while,” he was quick to reply. “I swear.”
For some reason, she felt compelled to look to Caitlyn for reassurance. The woman nodded, concurring with Matthew. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. He could have been cheating with any number of other women. God only knew he hadn’t been having sex with her, his own fiancée!
And now this all just confirmed suspicions she’d never dreamed of confronting. Cloying sensations that had been haunting the periphery of her consciousness for some time, teasing her, even though she’d never had the guts to listen to her inner voices. The ones that had been suggesting maybe Matthew Drake wasn’t exactly her soul mate.
Of course, she hadn’t bothered to listened to those instincts. On paper, Matthew had always looked wonderful. Pretty freaking terrific, actually.
Maybe there was something to be said for instinct.
She removed her engagement ring and tossed it to the ground before his feet. “Right. Well. I guess the only thing left to say, Matthew,” she continued in her best PowerPoint-presentation voice, “is I hope you burn in hell. And that your dick shrivels and falls off.”
Or that a hungry Rottweiler bites it off. Or that you get flesh-eating disease and it crumbles away in moldy, green pieces.
As Maggie contemplated all the imaginative ways Matthew’s traitorous penis could achieve a painful demise, she turned and left. Realizing that her personal world was now just as much in the shitter as her professional world.
* * * *
That was the first night Maggie dreamed of the creature.
A large beast with knowing, brown eyes. Eyes that glimpsed her shame and didn’t judge. Eyes that witnessed her sorrow and sought to comfort. Eyes that somehow understood everything.
He was a dark presence that infiltrated a nightmare brought on by stress and betrayal, a murky shape that hid in the background of her consciousness, yet which felt startlingly real to her. A spirit that was strangely connected to her, although she couldn’t imagine why.
It should have been frightening to her, but it wasn’t. If anything, the sight of the animal made her feel better, calmed her and soothed her.
What she didn’t understand, though, was why it also aroused her.
Perhaps it was because as the dream progressed, the creature changed, taking on the sensual aspect of a man with long, brown hair. An untamed man. One Maggie had never seen anywhere before. A man whose dark eyes seemed to see her in return with startling clarity and raw, reciprocated need.
As the images in the dream swept through her head, Maggie focused on his seductive eyes. And touched herself.
* * * *
From his home, a roiling ocean away, Calan Kirk dreamed of her. The frazzled Canadian redhead who’d lost her job and her lover in one day. The one with the astonishing blue eyes and a body whose curves could inspire love songs. He was immediately drawn to her, though he didn’t understand why.
His keen sense of otherworldly sight recognized her pain and wanted to fight for her. His sense of chivalry made him want to obliterate the man who’d hurt her. And stronger than anything, a new desire invaded his soul, making him lust for her with a force he could not fathom.
In his own dream, as a bizarre nocturnal communication began between them, Calan watched Maggie’s fingers slide over her moist sex. Saw the delectable dew on the red curls between her legs. She was thinking of him, although she didn’t understand it yet. He heard her whimpers, and they sounded like poignant music to him. He could almost smell her, even from his great distance. That sense, keen as it was, gave way to his sense of taste. Calan swallowed and his saliva was flavored with her sweetness, making him wish he had her under him so he could drink her in properly.
What was he thinking? She was a human. Not his kind and not to be trusted. He’d learned that after what happened to Kyla.
Oh well. It’s just a dream. Not as if you’ll ever meet the lass.
His conscience appeased, he reached for his member. He couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t help groaning as he reached a delirious climax, his dark eyes trained on the tantalizing image of her.
Human or not, real or dreamy wraith, no woman had ever fired up his body with as great a heat or sent such shudders through him. And as her image faded away, he realized no woman had ever left him feeling such an aching sense of loss.
One night, three months later, Maggie lay in bed, thrashing as she relived the same dream. Only this one was different.
Yes, it still featured the beast with the wildly erotic eyes that managed to undress her even in her sleep. Yes, she could still see its face, the visage of a great seal. But more often than not, he appeared to her as a man. A large man of sinful proportions with long, brown hair that flowed down his muscled back. He had a flirty grin and a body that seemed to glimmer with a soft sheen, as if he were bathed in moonlight.
He always seemed to know just what she needed, offering her friendly companionship when she was beating herself up over what happened at work. Telling her that the idiots at city hall didn’t deserve her. And during those dark, haunted moments when she felt like a total failure as a woman, he came to her as her lover. Whispering sweet words of temptation. Touching her body as no one ever had.
But this time, her Scottish grandmother was there, accompanying him. The great seal standing at her side.
Aw, man, what’s my grandmother doing in my sex dream?
Dream Maggie turned to the old woman. “Gran! You shouldn’t be here.”
The large animal chuckled in its deep human voice, and Maggie felt a stirring in her sex. A low, delicious hum of sexual connectivity. The same potent force that drew her in each time she dreamed of him. Pure magnetism.
“Maggie, lass,” her grandmother’s voice broke through in stiff remonstrance, “listen to me. There’ll be enough time for shenanigans later.”
Good old Nora MacLean. She always managed to bring Maggie back to Earth with her no-nonsense attitudes. She’d been the one to stir Maggie from the depths of her despair at being fired and at being betrayed by Matthew. Her clipped pep talks, laced with the odd Orkney swear word, never failed to make her feel better. But she didn’t really want Gran to see this. Whatever this weird relationship with the seal-man was.
As if sensing that her Gran needed to speak, the seal glided into the background of the dream. Maggie watched it move. For a moment, it seemed to morph into the image of the gorgeous man. But then it became a seal again.
“Maggie,” Nora intoned, her Orcadian accent thick and comforting. “Come to Orkney.”
“I’ll be there soon, Gran. Just a few more weeks until the yearly pilgrimage.” And then she smiled upon hearing the amused huff in her grandmother’s voice.
She couldn’t wait to see her grandmother and the Scottish isle of Orkney again. After finishing another temp job that only went nowhere, after still feeling like such a shmuck for having faith in men who deserved no such faith, Maggie was ready for a good visit and some Nora-isms.
God, first Bobby, then Matthew. I’m such a tool.
Gran would set her straight. She just hoped Gran was up for the visit. The old lady hadn’t felt well for a while. In fact, her most recent phone calls had only added to Maggie’s stress. Her gran had always had a sharp mind, but recently Nora had begun to ramble, sounding confused.
The dream grew darker then, the images more murky and disjointed. And even though she was tucked in her bed in her cramped Toronto apartment, Maggie could suddenly smell the sea.
Orkney, her grandmother’s ancestral home, was calling to her.
“You must come now, lass,” Nora implored.
Even in the dream, Maggie thought she heard a catch in her Gran’s voice. A hitch in her breathing. She ran toward her, and in her mind, she was racing through the dunes on a lonely Scottish beach.
“What’s wrong, Gran?”
As she waited for the response, Maggie turned to the seal creature. Why was it that his huge, brown eyes seemed to see right into her soul?
She was due to visit Nora at the end of summer, but something now told her it might not be soon enough. As an ominous feeling took root in the pit of her stomach, she stared at the animal. He stared back at her, his dark eyes deep and serene, and she felt a strange empathy radiating out from him.
Nora caressed Maggie’s auburn curls. “You mustn’t be sad for me. I’m an old woman, and happy to go. I’ll finally get to see your granddad after all these years, as well as your ma and da.”
Dream Maggie gasped at the mention of her dead parents. As if on cue, the large seal glided over to her and nudged her with his cold nose. She jumped but couldn’t resist reaching out a hand to pat his silky head. The creature pushed against her hand as if soaking up the momentary affection.
Confused, she turned back to Gran. “I don’t understand.”
Nora stepped in front of the seal and grasped her by the shoulders. “I wish I had time to explain. You must come to Orkney. Do a dying woman a final favor. Claim your inheritance. Everything I have is yours. Come, lass. Our little island is just what you need.”
Maggie felt pain slice through her as viciously as a knife. “Dying? Gran, no. I know you haven’t felt well, but…”
“Come,” said Nora with a sad smile. “I have a friend who will help you. Calan Kirk. You need only call for him and he’ll come to you in Orkney. He’s the answer to your prayers, and my prayers for you. Come, Maggie.”
The seal made a noise of encouragement at the same time Nora began to fade away. She drifted into the gray background of the dream and the animal followed, morphing once again into the image of the sculpted, naked man.
“No,” Maggie cried into her pillow. “Don’t go!”
With her cry, she awakened. And knew in that moment that Gran was dead.
Even as the grief began to wash over her in overwhelming waves, Maggie couldn’t help noticing the state of her pillowcase. It was wet, but not with her tears. It smelled strangely of seawater.
* * * *
A few days later, Maggie stood in Nora’s parlor. She felt dazed and unable to focus. “I still can’t believe she left everything to me.”
“She loved you, dear,” said Phyllis Brodie, her grandmother’s elderly friend, smiling through her false teeth.
“More than anyone.” The sentiment was echoed by her other friend, blue-haired Liz Campbell. The two ladies had been chums with Nora MacLean for years. They all lived in close proximity to Kirkwall, and had endeavored to take Maggie under their wings since she’d arrived on Orkney’s mainland island.
The jet lag hadn’t yet hit Maggie, but she knew it would. The flight from Toronto had felt longer than usual, exhausting her, leaving her with heavy eyes and a bad case of bed head. She knew she’d be a complete mess once the denial disappeared, and took a strange comfort in being so numb, if only for what would be a short time.
“Perhaps I’ll brew a nice cuppa,” suggested Liz, her wrinkly hand touching Maggie’s shoulder.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she replied. Maggie was grateful, but wanted nothing more than to be alone with her memories.
She’d almost expected to be met at the Kirkwall Airport by Calan Kirk, the man Gran had mentioned in the dream, but there had been no sign of him. Of course, it had been just a dream, but it had felt more like a prophecy. Especially when a kind Orcadian constable had phoned her afterward with the official news of her Gran’s demise. Even still, Maggie hadn’t spared too many thoughts about the mysterious Calan Kirk. He was probably imaginary, or some old crony of Gran’s. And Maggie already had her hands full with Liz and Phyllis. She glanced at the two venerable ladies in front of her.
As sweet as they were, they wouldn’t stop picking at her.
Liz touched Maggie’s bob. “Such lovely red curls! Just like when Nora was a lass.”
Phyllis concurred. “And bonnie blue eyes. But you look very tired, Maggie, dear.”
“I am a little tired.”
“My peach,” said Phyllis, the more assertive of the two pensioners, “lie down. I’ll see to the house for you. It could use a little dusting and such. Your granny was always such a packrat. I believe they call them ‘hoarders’ nowadays, although it doesn’t sound any more glamorous if you ask me.” She began to usher Maggie toward the stairs.
“No, really, please.” Maggie implored her with eyes, which were now burning. “You’ve been wonderful, and you were such friends to Gran. But, if it’s okay, I’d like to be alone.”
Phyllis, lips set tight and holding her ground, eyed the younger woman skeptically. Liz shooed her friend toward the door, waving her hands in a sweeping motion. “Leave the poor, wee thing, Phyllis. She’s suffered enough.”
Maggie blushed. They knew. Nora would have told Liz and Phyllis everything, about Matthew and her job, but she was too exhausted to be mortified.
“Of course.” Phyllis relented, moving reluctantly toward the door. “But if you need any help sorting through Nora’s things, you let me know. Poor Nora. She was a lovely woman, but didn’t possess a single organizational bone in her body.” The old lady scanned the dusty living room one more time, and then shook her head.
“Oh, Phyllis,” Liz chided. “Nora was hardly in any state to clean house. The blessed woman could barely find her spectacles on her head most days.” She offered a sad smile to Maggie. “She wasn’t well at the end, love, wasn’t herself. So confused. She’d just sit and stare and spout old bits of folklore. Such a shame.”
The thought of her gran staring into space recounting Orkney myths was about as heartbreaking as anything. She didn’t want to hear any more.
“We’ll leave you be,” Liz murmured, squeezing Maggie’s biceps.
Maggie tried to smile as they headed out the creaky front door and back to Liz’s car. She knew they meant well. They’d been close to Nora, and would have wanted to help.
“Just not right now,” she murmured as they disappeared down the road.
She meandered slowly through the old house, quietly touching Nora’s knickknacks, and there were a great many of them. Phyllis was probably right. Gran had been somewhat of a hoarder. She could never resist picking up a pretty bottle or antique necklace from the local market. But Maggie didn’t mind the clutter. Right now, it was comfortable. She almost felt she could absorb her grandmother’s presence through the items she’d left behind.
Nora had been the last surviving member of Maggie’s family. Maggie’s parents had been dead for years, having perished in a car crash together. In a way, this death was harder to take. Nora MacLean had been a larger-than-life personality, a strong woman who’d been passionate about her Orkney heritage and its rugged landscape. She’d played host to her granddaughter many a summer, and Maggie adored her with a fierceness that was unparalleled. The old woman’s death was quickly sucking the life out of her.
She decided she would stay on in Kirkwall for a time after the funeral. Exploring St. Magnus Cathedral and roaming along the beaches would remind her of the times she’d sat at Nora’s knee, listening to the old woman spin tales of the mythical Finmen and seductive selkie folk.
She just had to get through the funeral now. And try to figure out what she would do with Nora’s estate. She knew Nora would have wanted her to stay in Orkney, but the quiet, seemingly magical, island was worlds away from downtown Toronto.
“Of course,” she reminded herself as she fingered the yellowed piece of lace that acted as a tablecloth on the kitchen table, “there’s really nothing to go home for anyway.” The idea of heading back was currently as appealing as diving into a pool of piranhas wearing a meat bikini.
The last three months had been some of the worst in Maggie’s life. Losing the job that had been her passion. Being granted the glorious opportunity to see her ex-fiancé cheating on her. And then a series of discouraging temp jobs that never seemed to lead to anything more substantial than one-week assignments. To say nothing about the fact that Matthew wouldn’t leave her alone. He kept calling, kept trying to apologize. Luckily, although she’d had some lows, she never reached the kind of low that might send her tumbling back into a cheater’s arms.
Now, with Gran’s death, it felt like the last possible rug had been pulled out from under her. This was low.
In truth, things had been bad for a while. Before Matthew, there had been another failed engagement to a man who had seemed promising at the time. Sure, at first, Bobby had been all wine and roses, or more like beer and carnations. Still, he’d been kind and sweet.
But it had turned out the salesman had a woman in every port. Her first cheater. What a milestone.
After that experience, Maggie had figured she could spot a liar at a hundred yards. So why had her cheater radar failed so spectacularly with Matthew? Perhaps she just hadn’t been willing to see it. Maybe it had just been easier to pretend.
She was now determined to swear off men altogether.
And she couldn’t even run into the welcoming bosom of her family anymore. Mom, Dad, Gran, they were all gone, and she was reeling from the pain.
She needed ibuprofen. She needed to get her life back in shape. It was all she wanted now. Some semblance of normalcy. A good job. And given her current hatred of the male species, she was seriously contemplating a lesbian love affair.
Her head pounding, Maggie trudged upstairs and threw herself on Nora’s bed. “Just a short nap,” she said to herself, knowing she needed rest before tomorrow’s funeral. “Then Liz and Phyllis can fuss over me again.”
Nora’s pillow felt unfamiliar and she couldn’t get comfortable. She sat up and grabbed the pillow, meaning to give it a good fluffing, but somehow knew sleep wouldn’t come.
It was then that she remembered the cookie jar. Gran had never forgotten her love of sugary cookies, and had had a significant sweet tooth herself. Nothing had given the old lady more pleasure than to sneak cookies to Maggie when she was a little girl. To aid her in this quest, she’d kept her biscuits in a cracked jar on her kitchen counter. Maggie now wondered if she might find a stash in that same jar. Perhaps coming down from a sugar rush might help her sleep.
She padded down to the kitchen, which still appeared well stocked for a nuclear attack, and looked around. The old, red jar was still there. Grinning in spite of herself, Maggie lifted off the cover. There were indeed cookies in there, her favorite kind with the bits of sugar on one side, but there was also a piece of paper wedged at the back. Curious, Maggie stared at the paper while she inserted most of a cookie into her mouth. And then she reached for it.
When she saw it was a note from her Gran, she almost spit out what was left of the cookie. And when she saw what it said, she almost tossed all her cookies.
Maggie, my love. I knew you’d want a wee sweetie, and I thought this was the safest place to leave you a note.
There is a special part of your inheritance that I have had to hide. I dare not even mention the hiding place here. It isn’t safe. I shall have to trust you to find it. Just look in the places that meant the most to me.
It is the skin of a selkie. Once you find it, and find it you must, you are not to give it away until you’re done with it. Keep it hidden. Maggie, trust no one with it. There are those who would go to great lengths to steal such a prize. When I discovered it on the beach, I wanted it for you, and you alone. It can bring you great pleasure, something you haven’t had in a long time.
It belongs to my friend Calan Kirk, but he mustn’t have it back until you’re done with it. I explained that to him. I know he needs it, and he’ll try to get it back. When he realized I didn’t want it for myself, he said it had to be returned to him. I suggested we settle the matter in a friendly game of poker.
Thank the Lord your granddad taught me all those poker tricks!
I won it from Calan fair and square. Don’t get me wrong. Calan is a good man, but even he cannot be trusted with the selkie skin. Do not put it in his hands until you no longer have need of its powers.
You must find it. I won’t rest unless you do.
I love you, my wee one. Stay safe.
Maggie breathed in. “Hidden sealskins? Yuck.”
Surely these were the ramblings of a sick, old woman. And yet her Gran had mentioned Calan Kirk again, and she wasn’t even dreaming this time. What did she mean when she said she won the sealskin from him? Maggie could just picture the sight. Two old people playing cards for a smelly animal pelt. It was almost sad.
If it weren’t for the parts about not resting and trusting no one. That was just plain scary. What would make her Gran so paranoid?
She sat still, not sure what to do next.
It took all of thirty seconds for her curiosity to get the better of her. She turned and eyed the piles of books and figurines and small appliances ordered from the television. The mass of stuff around her. Where did one begin in such chaos?
Look in the places that meant the most to me.
Tentatively, as if she were being watched, Maggie took a step into the living room. Gran had an antique chest, one that had been reclining in the corner longer than Maggie had been alive. She knelt before it, unlatched the rusty latch, and raised the lid. She winced at the loud creak. The smell of old mothballs greeted her. With her nose wrinkled, Maggie reached in and burrowed through the worn blankets and clothing Nora had stopped wearing in the seventies.
“Go-go boots? Please tell me these weren’t yours, Gran.”
There was a noise somewhere outside. Without even thinking, Maggie pulled out her arm and slammed the lid shut. She quickly fastened the old latch. Then, without understanding why, she ran around the small house, locked the door, and shut all the blinds. Only after she was satisfied that no one was about, did she make her way back up to bed.
Yet, as tired as she was, she still could not sleep.
* * * *
“More wine, please, Annette,” called Calan from his place at the end of the bar, “and another oyster platter.”
The pub waitress did her best shimmy as she approached him with an inviting smile. “Why, Calan Kirk, that’ll be your third oyster platter tonight.” She leaned over his table, giving him an eyeful of carefully propped-up cleavage. “Are you fortifying yourself for the evening’s adventures?” She reached out a finger to twine in his long hair.
He pulled away, but gave her what he hoped was a kind grin. “Not tonight, pet.”
Human women. The grasping, gullible creatures.
She pouted, her rouged lips curling into a perfect, little pucker. “But it’s been so long since you visited me.”
It had been a while. Months, to be cock-teasingly precise. And for someone with his appetites, it was a bloody sacrifice. But as much as a mere whiff of Annette’s perfume used to tighten his trousers, now the sight of her ample bosom left him limp. And it was all Nora MacLean’s fault. Damn that meddling, old woman.
Calan swallowed. He hated making women sad, even the human variety. The very idea grated on his fraught nerves, but it was best to make a clean break of it. “Annette, you know it has to end. We’ve talked about this.”
The waitress blanched. “Is it another woman?”
Shite. He didn’t even know how to answer that question. Was there another woman? Was it possible that Maggie Collins was more than just a tempting dream? Or was she a sin-inspiring succubus sent by the devil himself to torment him?
Why did his life sometimes seem like an endless cycle of trying to escape those soft-skinned beauties?
He knew the Collins lass was in Kirkwall. It didn’t take long for news to spread on the island, and the place was abuzz with word of Nora’s Canadian granddaughter. He just hadn’t been able to seek her out in person yet, despite his promise to Nora.
He needed Maggie to do a little something for him first.
How on earth would he introduce himself to the petite redhead? Not that introductions would be required. Surely, she’d recognize him as the stranger she’d been having intense, sexual dreams of for months. As the creature who’d been haunting the periphery of her fantasy world, egging her on in her nighttime touch fest because it aroused him as much as her.
He shook his head, wishing he’d never lost that damned card game and subsequently, the pelt. It would teach him to drink and gamble at the same time. But he’d made an oath to the dying woman, hoping to appease her, when all he’d wanted was the pelt.
When Nora had found his pelt on the beach during one of his swims, he’d thought he’d have to entertain the stout, old woman. She’d gotten a strange look in her cloudy eyes then, telling him she wanted him to please her lonely granddaughter instead. He’d explained the magic only compelled him to pleasure the finder of the skin.
“So be it, Calan,” Nora had answered. “You are obliged to pleasure me. However, I daresay my old parts will not accommodate yours, and I shan’t break another hip. Therefore, the only thing that will give me pleasure is if you satisfy my Maggie.”
The cagey, old woman had found an interesting loophole.
He’d sputtered and griped but it had been hard to argue with her logic. After all, in doing this, he’d be pleasing Nora and the magic would be appeased. Still, he’d argued his point, feeling put in his place.
Nora had tittered. “Poor lad. Would it ease your mind if we played poker for it? If you win, I’ll give you the pelt. If I win, you take care of Maggie.”
“A tad unorthodox,” he’d grumbled. Still, he’d agreed, thinking he’d trounce the old bird.
It hadn’t quite gone that way. Nora had plied him with booze, and he’d lost in a spectacular fashion. The deal had been done. It was his duty to lavish Maggie with some selkie attention, and to look after her, as Nora had requested.
Because he could tell the old woman was dying, he’d given her his word.
And now, for some bizarre reason, he couldn’t think straight for thoughts of Maggie. Even though he’d only glimpsed her in dreams. Not that it really mattered how he glimpsed her. For someone like him, dreams were a powerful method of communication. Why, he’d carried on entire conversations with family members in his dreams! And now, he felt as if he already knew Maggie, not that he’d asked to know her, although they hadn’t spoken a single word to each other in the conscious world.
In his dream life, they’d done a lot more than just speak. And that was the only thought nowadays that put a bulge in his pants.
“I asked you a question, Calan.”
He looked up at the barmaid. Damn. He’d forgotten all about her. “I’m sorry, Annette, really I am.” He offered her the charming smile that had raised the skirts of many a barmaid over the years. “But I’ll take that wine and the oyster platter as soon as you’re ready, pet.”
Dumbstruck, Annette stumbled away to place the order.
Calan downed the last scrumptious drop of the red wine in his glass, and his thoughts returned to Maggie Collins. What was it about the woman? Ever since Nora had told him her story, she’d intruded into his dreams. He remembered his brother Angus having that experience when he met his mate Elsie.
Now that was a scary thought.
Angus had been immediately smitten with Elsie and had been following her like a wee pup ever since. Calan had never envisioned himself in that life. If Angus wanted to chain himself to a woman, and a human one to boot, so be it, but that wouldn’t be his fate. For so many years, he’d been more loner, than lonely. He was happy being on his own, shagging whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Living wherever his fancy took him. He was a nomad. A Gypsy.
An animal, just as Maggie fancied him in her dreams. And the wee thing didn’t know the half of it.
And the animal in him wanted his damned pelt back. But he wouldn’t get it until he fulfilled his promise to Nora, and that promise involved meeting Maggie in the flesh.
And, by Freyja’s ponderous tits, he was a man who kept his promises. Even the ones made to the blasted humans.
In this case, he certainly had to. Not only was he frustratingly curious about the Canadian redhead, he also needed to go home. It had been ages since he’d returned to his home under the waves and it was calling to him. A summons so strong it was practically a command.
To say nothing of his brother’s situation. Angus had come to him in a dream not long ago, letting him know that Elsie would soon give birth to their firstborn. A huge event in a selkie family, one that all family members attended out of tradition. Angus was the closest of all his brothers, like a second father, and he really wanted Calan there for the birth. Calan couldn’t disappoint him.
But he couldn’t go home without the pelt. He might be an excellent swimmer, but it was the pelt’s power that allowed him to stay underwater for more than a few moments at a time. Without it wrapped around his body, he was as good as landlocked. Sure, he kept a home on land, and could be quite comfortable for a time. However the pull of the sea was great and no earthly home would ever be as welcoming as the embrace of the waves.
He just had to hide the skin better next time. The day he’d lost it to Nora, he’d taken it off so he could sunbathe on a boulder. It had been an unseasonably warm day and after a time, he’d felt the need to dip his toes in the waves again. Damn him for not hiding the pelt better! He’d only gone out waist-deep to cool off, but by the time he noticed Nora creeping up on him, she already had the skin in her wrinkled hands.
He’d been foolish. But when he’d seen the old woman collecting seashells down the beach, he never dreamed she’d try to collect a selkie while she was at it.
Annette arrived with a new oyster platter and a more than a hint of desperation in her eyes. She dropped it in front of him and proceeded to flirt shamelessly with another man at the bar for his benefit. Calan breathed in deeply. He hated breaking it off with a woman. He knew, without any immodesty, that losing someone like him could be devastating to a human. He’d seen it happen countless times. Every time a lass thought she’d sunk her claws into him for good, he’d had to go. A man like him didn’t want to be tied down, not to one place, and certainly not to one woman. It was against his nature.
It was bad enough being forced to stay with one when he couldn’t find his pelt. When there was no compulsion to stay, his need to escape was heightened.
And what of it? There was no law against being a happy bachelor.
He looked away from the barmaid who was practically sitting on the other man now, so intent was she on gaining Calan’s attention. No matter. He couldn’t afford to worry about Annette now. He had bigger fish to fry and a pelt to find. If he had to, he’d seduce it right out of the Collins woman’s pretty hands.
Of course, without the pelt, he couldn’t give her the whole show, couldn’t do a full transformation for her. And if there was anything he’d learned about women, it was that they appreciated a bit of theater. They loved the idea of an animal becoming man for them. He wouldn’t be able to show Maggie his true selkie face, but he supposed he could harness his powers to fake it a little.
He picked up an oyster shell and slurped the delicious contents down with resolve.
It was time to meet Miss Maggie. In person.
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