Under My Skin
by Tamrie Foxtail
Selkie: a creature which takes the form of a seal in water, but can assume a human form on land by shedding its pelt.
Mya’s first glimpse of Ryan Grace sent her spinning through time. He had his father’s tall lean build and the same dark blond hair.
Ryan crouched, aiming a camera at the castle. While his attention was occupied Mya clung to the shadows, moving closer to the offspring of the man who had slaughtered her husband before her eyes.
Ryan focused on the castle. The full moon and wisps of fog made for a perfect shot. He could use it for the cover of his upcoming book about Dracula.
The hair on the back of his neck began to rise. He turned slowly to look over his shoulder and nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of the woman stepping from the shadows.
He might have thought she was one of the guests for whatever was going on in the castle, had her clothes not been so simple. While the women he’d watched going into the party had been dressed to the hilt, this young woman wore jeans and a long sleeved blouse with a scoop neck.
Ryan stood slowly, not wanting to scare her off. There was something about her that made him think of a wild animal—curious, but ready to flee at any moment.
“I know who you are.” The young woman stood on the rocks, just a few feet away, legs braced for balance, hands at her side.
The moonlight washed the color from her skin, hair and clothes, casting her in black and white. Even so she was lovely, with high cheekbones, big eyes and a mouth nature meant for kissing.
“You have the advantage,” he said.
“He killed my husband.”
He shook his head slowly. His father had been selfish and mean as hell, but a murderer?
Ryan motioned toward the castle. “Let me guess, your father was the king of Transylvania?”
She took a step closer, long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. “Don’t mock me.”
He had to admit she had the regal air down pat. He stood his ground.
“My father has been dead for nearly twenty years. You’re what? Twenty? So unless you were married as an infant you need to start looking for another villain.”
Something howled at the moon. The woman whirled at the sound, a move that cost her balance. Her arms pin wheeled for a moment in a desperate attempt to maintain her footing.
Ryan lunged forward, making a grab for her. His fingertips brushed the soft material of her sweater. Before he could grab hold she fell, her head striking the rocks below.
He scrambled down the jagged rocks and crouched next to the woman. His fingers found the pulse in her neck. Strong and steady. He ran his hand over her arms and legs. No bones sticking out, no puddle of blood. He stroked his palm over the back of her head. His fingers came away sticky with blood.
Ryan was thirty and in good shaped, but lifting an unconscious woman while crouched on uneven rocks was no easy task. He nearly lost his own balance, recovering just in time to avoid tumbling them both down the side of the cliff.
He carried her back up the rocks, to where the earth was solid beneath his feet. After a quick glance in the direction of his car, parked nearly half a mile down the road, he turned toward the castle.
Ryan shifted the woman in his arms. Before he could reach for the ancient brass knocker the heavy door swung open.
The man stepped back, motioning for Ryan to enter.
He stepped into the castle. The door swung closed behind him.
Somewhat bemused, Ryan fell into step behind him, catching sight of several men and women in the background.
The man led the way up a wide stone staircase, coming to a stop in front of an open door. He again motioned for Ryan to proceed him.
Ryan carried the woman to the bed, setting her down gently. Up close, and in the light, she was a little older than he’d thought, twenty-three or twenty-four, perhaps.
Her skin was pale and smooth, like porcelain. He watched the rise and fall of her chest. She seemed to be breathing normally.
“I need to call--” He looked around. “Where the hell’d he go?” He stepped into the hall, nearly running into the servant who now carried a bowl of water and a cloth.
“Here. There are clothes in the wardrobe. You and the lady may make yourselves at home. My name is Igor. Call if you need me.”
Ryan watched him walk away then turned back to the woman on the bed.
“Darlin’ I got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Mya opened her eyes. For just an instant she was back in Scotland, in a cottage on the shore, with Thomas Grace bending over her.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “And now you’re mine. I’ve hidden your pelt where you’ll never find it.”
She shook the memory away, sitting up slowly, relieved when the room didn’t move.
“How do you feel?”
His voice was deeper than his father’s. The sound of it sent tiny shivers dancing along her spine.
He stood next to the bed, arms folded across his chest, jaw set. Up close, the resemblance to his father was not as strong. Ryan’s features were less refined, his eyes dark blue instead of pale gray.
He canted his head to one side. “That was a hell of an accusation. Since my father’s been dead for almost twenty years, you obviously have your facts skewered. Unless you were married at the age of two.”
With her pelt gone the aging process had slowed. A human might think that was a good thing. A selkie knew it was torture.
“I was married on my fifteenth birthday,” she said.
He raised one eyebrow. “A child bride?”
“My father chose my husband.” It was the way of the selkies. A female had no say in her mate. They were married young so they could begin having children. Few of the children would survive to adulthood.
Mya swung her feet over the bed, a move that had her head drumming and the room spinning. Ryan crouched in front of her, hands resting on her knees.
“You all right?”
“I think so,” she whispered.
“You have a knot on the back of your head, not to mention a hell of a gash.”
Her fingers went automatically to the tender lump on the back of her head.
“Did you carry me?” she asked.
“Then it’s my blood on your clothes?”
Ryan looked down at the gray sweatshirt he wore, plucking it away from his chest. A smear of blood had dried on the front of the shirt.
“Yeah. I’m afraid your clothes are in bad shape as well. Igor said there were clothes in the armoire and we could help ourselves.”
She looked down at the rust colored sweater she wore. It didn’t seem to be in bad shape, a snag on the wrist, but no other damage.
As if he read her mind, Ryan leaned over her. His finger traced a path from her shoulder halfway down her back. “There’s a huge tear in your sweater, not to mention blood stains.”
He straightened, walked to the armoire and opened the door. After a moment he pulled out a dark green dress. “I’m guessing this would look good on you.”
“Are there any jeans?” There was a two-inch tear in the knee of her jeans.
“Nope. There’s a tux, but I think it might be a little big on you.”
“Hand me the dress.”
He handed it to her with a mocking smile. “Your servant, milady. You did say your father was a king?”
“That’s right. What are you doing?” She held the dress to her chest as Ryan peeled off his bloody sweatshirt.
“Don’t worry. I’m not after your body.”
She drew in a breath, held it. Ryan Grace had the torso of a Greek statue, every muscle defined. His chest was lightly furred with a slender line of hair disappearing beneath the waistband of his jeans.
“Do you want me to step out?” he asked.
She nodded. “Maybe you can find me a couple of aspirin.”
He bowed. “Of course, your highness.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Ryan knocked on the door before entering, although he didn’t wait for her permission.
At the sight of Mya standing in front of the antique floor length mirror, an appreciative whistle sprang from his lips. The dress could have been made just for her. The dark green crushed velvet fit her torso like a second skin, hugging her tiny waist and flaring hips before falling in loose folds to the floor. The scoop neck bodice was high enough to preserve her modesty, barely, yet low enough to make a man’s mouth water at the swell of flesh rising above the unadorned neckline.
Her hair had been set free and it now twisted and tumbled down her back like a dark brown cloak. Her eyes, liquid soft and black as a moonless night, met his in the mirror.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, surprising himself.
Her eyes swept over him. “You look like your father,” she said, “but not as much as I first thought.”
Ryan tried to think where she might have seen pictures of his father. Thomas Grace had been an artist, though not well known. He’d spend the summers off from his teaching job travelling and painting. The last place he’d painted had been in Scotland. He’d caught some kind of fever and died alone in a cottage by the sea when Ryan was eleven. His first emotion had been relief that the abusive bastard was gone, he’d never lay another hand on his wife and son. Ryan’s second emotion had been guilt over the first.
“I’m nothing like my father,” he said in his own defense.
Her calm, dark eyes studied him.
“How old are you?” he asked, determined to point out that his father had died when she was a baby, therefore he couldn’t have murdered her husband.
She tipped her head to one side, her full lips shifting into a hint of a smile. “I thought humans considered it impolite to ask a female her age.”
“You said you married at fifteen. My father’s been dead for nineteen years. That means you would have to be at least thirty four in order for my father to have murdered your husband. I’d say you’re quite a bit short of that.”
She shook her head slowly, never taking her eyes from his.
“You’re thirty four?”
Mya gestured to the bloody clothes on the floor. “You saw the gash on the back of my head?”
“Yes, and the one on your shoulder as well. I cleaned them both.”
She turned her back to him, lifting that gorgeous tumble of hair. “Look.”
Oh, he was looking. The back of the dress was cut deep, revealing plenty of smooth, pale skin. And there was the fact that the material clung to her hips and derriere.
“I’m looking,” he whispered, clearing his throat when the words came out rough and low.
Mya looked at him over her shoulder.
“I meant, look at the injury to my shoulder.”
He stepped closer. His thumb brushed her skin, just above the dress.
He edged the dark green material down, reveal the smooth skin beneath. That was impossible. There had been a shallow gash nearly two inches long. He’d washed the blood away himself.
Mya set her hair loose. It cascaded to her hips. “Check my head.”
His fingered sifted through her hair. No gash. No bump. Nothing.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
She turned to face him, one hand rested against his chest.
“It makes perfect sense. For a selkie.”
She watched the emotions shift across his face: Anger, bewilderment, even fear, then circle back to anger again
“Selkies are just stories told to amuse children.”
She held her arms out to the sides. “And yet, here I am.”
“Are you going to change back into a seal?” Sarcasm dripped from his words.
Mya took a step forward, put her hands on her hips, tilted her head back and glared at him.
“I would love to. There’s just one problem.”
“And what would that be?”
“Your father stole my skin nineteen years ago. The same night he murdered my husband.”
Deep creases ran across Ryan’s forehead. “My father was an anthropology professor who spent his summers painting. Why would he…”
She saw the pain in his eyes.
“Yes,” she whispered. She closed her eyes, seeing the bleak coast line, the gray seas. She had married the man her father chose for her. They weren’t in love, but then Selkies rarely married for love. They lived in small, isolated herds and marriages were made to unite one herd with another.
She honored her father’s choice and that fateful day, nearly two decades ago, she followed her husband to an isolated spot on the coast, shed her skin and joined him in swimming the way humans swam. Afterwards they made love in human form. They stretched out side-by-side, not quite touching, half dozing beneath the late summer sky, their skins just a few feet away.
Arua was lying on his stomach. He was the first one to react to the soft click. Rolling over, climbing to his feet in a heartbeat, Arua grabbed a piece of driftwood, holding it like a club.
“Mya, behind me.”
She moved behind her husband, leaning to the side to better watch the human male.
The man held an object up. “I’m a painter. I’m just here to take a few pictures of the coastline for inspiration.”
Mya felt the tension coming off Arua. It struck her like the waves striking the shore.
“My wife and I are not part of the coastline.”
The man smiled, a soft, charming smile than probably put humans at ease. It did nothing of the sort for Mya.
“Give me the picture box,” Arua ordered.
The man shook his head and took a step back.
Arua advanced, hand extended to rip the box from the human’s hand if need be.
The human came to a sudden stop, blocked by a large, jagged rock that reached to his shoulders.
“Give me the picture box,” Arua repeated.
The man shook his head, sliding the picture box into the pocket of the covering he wore.
Arua lunged forward. The man let out a cry of fear.
A sudden crack, loud as thunder, shook the air.
Arua dropped to his knees, the movement taking place slowly.
The man stood there, something other than the picture box now held in his hand. The skin on his face turned white. His eyes were wild and his hands shook.
“I didn’t…he came at me and…”
She rushed to her husband, cradling him in her arms. His hands were pressed to his chest, crimson blood welling between his fingers.
“Pelt,” he whispered, his skin shivering, rippling, bones remolding themselves as his body used the last bit of Arua’s strength, the last of his energy, to return to his native form.
Mya lowered him to the sand, sprinting back to where their skins lay. She snatched his, ran back to him and spread his pelt over him. It fused to his half shifted form.
Kneeling in the sand, Mya stroked her husband’s shoulder while the final shudders racked his body.
Intent on returning Arua to seal form, Mya had forgotten about the man. She turned her attention to him now. Gaining her feet slowly, she turned and gasped. He held her pelt in his hand.
“I never thought such creatures existed,” he said, fear and shock now replaced with awe.
Mya held out her hand. “Give me my pelt.” She had to return to her seal form and carry word of her husband’s slaughter to her father, and to Arua’s father.
The man shook his head. “I know the stories. As long as I have your pelt you belong to me.”
Everything she said was true. Ryan felt it in his heart, in his soul. His father had killed her husband, though from what Mya said he believed his father thought he was acting in self-defense at the time.
“He kept your…pelt.”
She shook her head slowly, the silky cloak of her hair shifting against her shoulders.
“He forced me to go with him, back to a cottage. He put my pelt in a trunk and locked it. I thought I would be able to get to it, even if it meant I would have to endure what he planned for me, then kill him as he slept.”
“What happened?” Ryan asked.
A wispy figure appeared behind Mya. Ryan had the impression the figure lifted something and pointed it at him. A sharp sting, gone almost instantly, struck his shoulder. He clamped his hand over it, but the pain was already gone.
“Are you all right?” Mya asked, her voice gentle.
He nodded. He understood why his father had been so enamored with her he’d locked her pelt up to keep her with him. Not that it excused what his father had planned for her.
He looked past her. The wispy thing was gone.
“What happened?” he asked again, trying to concentrate on what she had to say, difficult when all he could think about was how beautiful she was and how much he wanted to kiss her.
Mya folded her arms across her chest, hugging herself.
“He tied me up and put a piece of cloth in my mouth to silence me, then he put me in the bedroom and closed the door. Two men came. I heard their voices.
“Sometime later your father came in and told me that he was leaving Scotland the next day. Two men had just picked up a trunk of his things and would be sending it back to America. My pelt was in the trunk and if I had any hope of retrieving it I would have to go with him to America.”
“How did he plan to accomplish that? Even nineteen years ago it would have taken some effort to get a passport. For that matter, how had he planned on explaining you to my mother?”
“He wasn’t thinking clearly. When he untied me, his skin was dry and hot. He tried to…force me…but his strength was already affected. Unlike the first hours after Arua’s murder, I was no longer in shock. I put up a fight. That night when his fever raged, I fled the cottage.”
“He died,” Ryan said. “All alone in that cottage. My mother had his body flown home. We buried him. She helped me carry that trunk up to the attic. My mother just assumed it was his painting supplies. She never even looked inside it .”
Mya stepped close, her lovely cheeks flushed with excitement. Her hands wrapped around his upper arms, the contact sending tiny zings of excitement though his flesh.
“Is it still there?”
“I think so. My mother still lives in that house. I don’t think she’s cleaned out the attic.”
“Will you take me there?”
Pain tore through his heart. Take her to her pelt? Watch her turn into a seal and dive into the water, never to be seen again, taking his heart with her?
How could he let her go?
“You’ve been human all this time,” he said. “Do you really want to become a seal again?”
“Being separated for our skin is torture for a selkie,” she whispered. “It’s fine as long as our skins are close by, but distance makes our human skin feel like someone is rubbing sandpaper across it. The greater the distance, the worse the pain.”
He wanted to touch her, comfort her, but would that make the pain worse for her?
Ryan hesitated a moment, then pulled his cell from his pocket.
“What are you doing?” she asked, a slight frown marring her pretty brow.
“It’s the afternoon in Charleston.” He hit his mother’s number. Keeping his eyes on hers, he counted the rings, his heart growing heavier with each one.
“Hi, sweetheart,” his mother said. “Did you get some pictures for your book?”
“Yes.” Without thought he reached for Mya, she came into his arms as if she’d always belonged there, resting her head against his chest.
“Ryan? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “I need to ask you something. When Dad died there was a chest sent from Scotland.”
“I know the one you mean,” she said.
“Is it still in the attic?”
“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been storing stuff in the attic for twenty-eight years. I’ve yet to take anything out.”
“Could you look for something?” The words were bits of broken glass in his mouth.
“Have you seen the attic?” his mother asked. “Everything’s pushed together. If you’re wanting something from that old trunk I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until you’re back. It would take days, if not weeks, to drag out everything that’s in front of it.”
He told his mother goodbye, then kissed the top of Mya’s head. “I’ll find it for you,” he whispered. “I’ll send it to you. I promise. Even if it means I’ll never see you again. I can’t bear the thought of you in pain.”
She pulled back slightly, enough to look into his eyes. Her warm fingers stroked his cheek.
“I could come with you.”
It made perfect sense. She’d be close to her pelt, and therefore no longer in pain.
“You haven’t seen my mother’s attic,” he warned. “It could take weeks to find that old trunk. You’d need a place to stay.”
The corners of her mouth lifted. “Do you have a spare room?”
He touched his forehead to hers. “No, but I have a queen-size bed and I don’t mind sharing.”
Mya walked beside Ryan, his hand pressed against the small of her back. In a day or two she’d be close to her pelt and the constant pain would be a thing of the past. For the first time in nearly two decades, the burning desire to put on the pelt was gone.
She had grown accustomed to walking on two legs and living as a human. Perhaps it was time she learned to love as a human.
She looked up at Ryan Grace, no longer seeing a resemblance to his father. Instead, she saw the man her heart told her would calm the longing in her soul.
“Do you want to stay for the party?” Ryan asked, motioning to the couples dancing across the floor.
Mya wondered if he’d realized she wasn’t the only not-quite-human in the castle tonight. If he hadn’t, he would soon enough. She had faith in his ability to handle it, after all, he’d accepted her being a selkie without too much trouble.
Should she tell him that the children of a female selkie were always selkies as well?
He took her in his arms, the music folding around them.Mya smiled. She had a feeling Ryan would learn about the children of selkies first hand.
Thank you for spending Halloween with the OKRWA Wildokie Writers.