Currie threw open the French doors and stepped out on her balcony to greet the day. It was a beautiful morning with blue skies and puffy, white clouds. She looked across the lawn and saw Frank and his wife walking to the fish hatchery. Why not? The hatchery was solace for Frank. Maybe it would help his wife too.
When Currie reached the kitchen, Thora was already there, bustling and busy.
“I feel like a million bucks today!”
They whipped through the Dutch Babies, bacon, and fruit and had the dining room setup way ahead of schedule.
After breakfast, Trisha and Mandy were the only guests who came to Currie’s art class.
“I heard a wolf last night.” Trisha settled her plump form onto a stool and squinted at her canvas. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine. It stopped howling right away. A good sign.”
“They’re beautiful animals.” Mandy frowned at her painting. “Avery’s been dying to see one to sketch, but they keep eluding him.”
Trisha dabbed at a clump of leaves she’d painted that didn’t please her. “He and Brie are scanning his sketches into the island’s computer this morning. They looked pretty cozy when I passed the door.”
Mandy sighed and smudged the tan pastel shoreline she’d just drawn for her landscape. “You’re trying your best to make me into an artist, but I don’t have the knack. Now, Trisha here, is a natural.”
“Painting relaxes me. I never realized what a wonderful outlet it is.”
Mandy cocked her head. “Why are you in need of an outlet, my friend? What are you running from? You’ve heard my gory details. What’s yours?”
“Mandy!” Currie shook a finger at her, but Trisha waved off her objections.
“It’s all right. I’ve just been knee-deep in aging and death for so long, I needed a break.”
“Death?” Mandy asked.
“My dad had a stroke three years ago. Lost his speech. Couldn’t keep his balance. I tried to spell Mom at the hospital, but she spent too much time there. When Dad finally got to come home, it was a lot of work taking care of him. Then a year ago, he died of a massive heart attack.”
“Just like that?” Mandy asked.
Trisha grimaced. “I felt guilty, because I was glad it was fast. I was glad we didn’t have to go through another round of hospital visits. And I was glad he didn’t suffer. I thought it was better for my mom too, but she sank into a depression.”
“You should have sent her on a cruise somewhere.” Mandy’s smudge turned into a smear, and she cussed under her breath.
“The thing is, Mom needed more time and attention than I could give her. My husband and I talked, and we finally had her come to stay with us until she got better.”
Mandy wrinkled her nose. “So you played nursemaid. Bet your mom loved all the attention.”
“You’d think, but we couldn’t do anything right. She didn’t like the way we cooked eggs. She didn’t like the lunches we made her. My husband’s a patient man, but he ended up hating her.”
“Fancy that. My mom and I wouldn’t survive a few hours together.”
Trisha ran a hand through her coarse, gray hair, lost in thought. “She wasn’t happy, but she kept telling us how much she relied on us.”
“The old guilt routine. You didn’t fall for it, did you?”
“I was raised on guilt,” Trisha said.
“So what did you do?” Currie asked. “Did she finally get better?”
“Worse. Her memory went.”
“Dementia. She’d leave the teapot on, forget to take her medicine, and spend all day looking for dad or trying to call relatives who’d died years ago.”
Mandy drew circles in the air. “Once they’re nutcases, they need to be locked up.”
“No, I’m a caregiver with a capital C.”
“More like a dope with a capital D.” Mandy smiled to take away the sting.
Trisha sighed. “Maybe. It didn’t work. We finally put her in an assisted living center, but she hates it there. She hates me for putting her there.”
“She wasn’t happy living with you,” Currie said.
“I know.” Trisha rubbed the bridge of her nose--a tired gesture. “I visit her every afternoon.”
“Every day?” Currie was impressed.
“She’s my mom.”
Many rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t mean you have to like her. You work, don’t you?”
“I teach nursery school.”
“God, you deal with wiggly kids and old people. I’d shoot myself.” Mandy looked at Currie. “What about you? Your mom must be decent. You three sisters seem so happy, she must have done something right, but you never talk about her. Is she dead?”
“She travels a lot,” Currie said. “Always has, so my dad did most of the grunt work raising us. He was wonderful.”
“Was?” Mandy plunked her paint brush in a jar of water.
“He died a little before you came to the island. I still miss him.”
“But what’s the deal with your mom? Does she show up when you need her?”
“She visits us once in a while between clinics. She’s busy. She has a job to do.”
“If you say so.” Mandy looked unimpressed. For the first time, Currie wondered what it would be like to have two parents around all the time to raise you. She’d never missed it. Never questioned it. Her father was sufficient.
She looked out the windows and saw Ward working on the grill--alone. The beach was a short distance from here. He should have stayed in a group of three, but . . .
Trisha pushed herself to her feet. “Only five more minutes of class. I think I’ll call it a day, but thanks for listening to me.”
“Your mom’s lucky to have you,” Mandy said. “She just can’t think straight enough to realize it.”
Trisha put her canvas away and cleaned up her station. Mandy followed her lead. They were still talking as they left the class. Currie put the supplies away and looked out the window again. Ward was starting to build the chimney for the outdoor grill. It was a beautiful piece of work made with different colored heavy stones. He was alone. She was alone. She opened the window and blended with the wind to travel to the stone he was bending to pick up. She let herself sink into it and could feel Ward’s strong hands surround it as he lifted it into place. He sat it on its base, then stared at it and jumped backward.
She left it and stood before him.
He stared, looked away, then stared again. “What just happened? How did you do that? I looked at the stone, and . . .” He rubbed his hand over his eyes.
She wanted to laugh, to dance, to put her arms through his and do a jig. “You saw me!” But Ward looked shaken. He kept looking from the stone to her. She tried to explain. “It was the last test. You passed!”
He took a step away from her. “I don’t know what the hell just happened, but it’s time to talk.” He led her to her dad’s tree. “Sit.”
She didn’t want to sit. She wanted to hoot and holler, to celebrate. She’d met her mate!
Ward crossed his arms over his chest. “I watched you step out of that stone.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” The willow branches caressed him as Currie explained about her, her sisters, and Thora and Emeralda.
“Nymphs and sprites.” Ward shook his head, dazed. “You’re real. And I’m not just crazy.”
“I know it’s a little hard to believe.”
“A little?” He took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, fighting for composure.
“Haven’t you wondered about the willow tree and how much it loves you? About your wolf? Why it’s happy to be by your side?”
“I thought…well, I guessed…that your family and animals had interacted for so long on this island that things were different here.”
“They’re different,” she agreed.
He frowned. “No wonder you weren’t worried about being attacked. You can evaporate.”
“My sisters and I can meld with anything in nature, but Thora and Emeralda can only meld with their elements.”
“Because they’re sprites.” He ran both hands through his hair. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
“You sort of suspected, didn’t you?”
“This? No! I knew something was different about the island, but who in their right mind would dream up something like nymphs?”
A chill ran through her. “You make it sound like an insult. I thought you’d be happy.”
“No, sorry, I’m just having trouble wrapping my brain around the whole thing.” He stared at her again, trying to take it all in. “So what happens now? Since I saw you?”
“Only a true mate can see his love when she melds.”
“A mate.” He tasted the word, then his brows quirked as he wrestled with the idea. “Is that the same as getting married? You know, having kids and growing old together?” None of this was going the way Currie had thought it would. Worry niggled inside her. She thought there’d be hugs, kisses…happiness. “I don’t grow old. Ever. Nymphs mate with a man for his life. And I’m bound to this island.”
Ward began to pace. “I was ready for that, to marry you and stay on the island, but I’ll grow old. You won’t. That’s too much for me to even take in. I need time to think. What happened with your dad? Did he get old and die while your mom stayed young and healthy?”
Had her dad asked this many questions when he saw her mother meld? Did most mortals grapple with so many worries? “Your hair will go white, and your eyes will grow dim, but you’ll stay strong and healthy every day of your life. That, I can offer you. But you will die. One night, you’ll go to sleep, and you won’t wake up. But Dad lived a few hundred years. And he loved it here.”
“A few hundred years?” Ward backed away from her. “That’s a long time.”
“Not really. I’ll live forever.”
“Too much! This is just too much.” The willow wrapped its branches around his shoulders in a hug. It could feel his distress.
Currie had never considered that immortality might seem like a burden instead of a blessing. She sighed. “This isn’t what you wanted, is it?”
He looked across the lake. “I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. This is bigger than I’m ready for. Maybe we should cool it for a while.”
She felt like he’d slapped her. She’d never felt a pain like this before, like a hole had opened in her heart and she was hemorrhaging hope. He’d seen her. Didn’t that mean he was right for her? That they’d join together and be one? She had to get away. She whirled to leave. She couldn’t keep the hurt out of her voice. “My cooking class starts soon.”
“Currie, I’m sorry---.”
She kept walking, calling back over her shoulder, “Let’s just pretend nothing happened.”
“But it did.”
“I can’t be around you for a while.” She hadn’t gotten much right lately. Everything on the island was off kilter. She didn’t look back until she was safe in the kitchen behind the French doors. Ward was still standing by the lake, staring across its waters with his hands jammed into his pockets.
Tears threatened, but she steeled herself against them. She thought he’d be happy. He wasn’t. And now she wasn’t either. No wonder Emeralda had given up on true love. It was too hard, hurt too much. She’d given romance a try, but no more. Saffron might envy her, and her sister could flirt and woo if she wanted to, but Currie was done with men.