“I don’t swim.” Grace is firm.
“But it is very hot today,” Dance points out. “There would not be so much hotness if you were to come into the water.” Dance is already halfway there, thigh-deep in the jewel-green bayou. “I do not understand.”
Grace shakes her head. “I almost drowned when I was a kid. Lucas swims, but I won’t. I can’t.”
Dance shrugs, and slides into the river with hardly a ripple. It does look cool and inviting, but she can’t. Just… no. After all, the water is dangerous. She almost drowned.
Besides, she’s had a strange… itch, for about a month, and has no idea what the water might do to it. She doesn’t want to go to the clinic and be the talk of the bayou. There’s enough gossip flying around as it is, without adding speculation about what caused this creeping crud. It’s been difficult keeping Hal out of her pants, and even harder to keep herself from scratching herself raw. What might be in that water, and what might it do to her skin? Ugh.
Drin’s nephew Teo drops down beside her, squeezing wetness out of his hair. Obviously, he’s not afraid of the water. Neither is Drin, who’s splashing away out by the raft, practicing various ridiculous dives to make the kids laugh. The man does a hell of a cannonball. Teo clears his throat. “You’ve never tried to conquer your fear?”
Grace frowns. “No. Russell made sure Lucas learned, but he said that it would be too stressful for me.” She shrugs. “I would have taken the swimming lessons if he had wanted me to, but…”
Teo shrugs, too, and smiles wryly. “What happened when you were a kid? Was there an accident? Were you horsing around?” He’s teasing her, she realizes. This is an amazing departure from his impassive, dour demeanor. He almost looks… cute.
“I almost drowned.”
“How old were you?” Teo asks. His head is tipped to the side, and he reaches up to tuck a stray strand of damp blonde hair behind his ear.
Grace watches a long drip of water slide down his forehead, over his cheekbone. “I don’t remember. I was a kid,” she replies patiently.
Teo rearranges another strand of hair that was dripping on his face, and grins. His teeth are very straight and white. “So I guess you weren’t on the high school swim team. What school did you go to?”
“Central High in Philadelphia.”
“What were your school colors?” Teo is laughing, his teeth flash in the dappled light of the live oak they’re standing under, but his eyes, behind the thick lashes, are sharp, almost grim. Why?
“Hmmm.” Grace considers the question for a moment. “I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.”
His voice is chiding. “You can’t be all that old. Twenty-two?”
“Teo, I’m twenty-five.”
He rocks back against the tree. “Oh my god, you’re almost elderly,” he declares, and snorts inelegantly. “Are you an only child, or do you have brothers and sister?”
“Oh, I’m an only child. So was my father. My mom has a sister, and they’re very close. How about you?”
“Oh, I have a brother. We don’t see each other very often.” He doesn’t elaborate. He looks out over the water, where Drin and Emma are horsing around like a couple of teenagers. It looks like she’s going to push him off the diving raft. It also looks like he’s going to snatch the top off her itty bitty bikini. Wonder who’ll get the upper hand in the end? Then Teo’s head snaps around quickly enough to splash her with a fine spray of bayou water. “What’s your aunt’s name?”
Grace opens her mouth — and draws a complete blank. She tries to tease it out of her memory, and it doesn’t rise to the tip of her tongue. There is no recall whatsoever. “I… I don’t know.” The harder she thinks, the blanker her mind gets. She heaves herself up off the grass to cover her confusion. What is this, the third degree? Who cares what her aunt’s name is? There’s nowhere to go but down the bank and into the water. Why does she feel like Teo is the meanest, nosiest person alive? If she doesn’t get away, she’s gonna humiliate herself by crying. Tears are already making her vision blur.
She’s knee-deep in the cool water of the bayou when she feels scales sliding along her calves. Something wraps itself around her calf, twining around her ankle. Her scream echoes as she tries to levitate above the water and scramble to the bank as quick as she can, terror metallic on her tongue. See, the water is bad!!! She never should have stuck her feet in, and now some giant fish is going to fucking eat her…
Then she notices Dance’s laughing face not ten feet from where she is. His tail rises from the water, glinting in the sun, and gives her a jaunty little wave. And, all of a sudden, she is furious. How dare he? He knows that she almost drowned when she was a kid, knew that she didn’t go into the water. She is going to catch him and throttle him if it’s the last thing she ever does!
She must be telegraphing her intention mightily, because his eyes widen and he dives into the murky bayou in a wide arc. She’s after him, down out of the sun and into dim green light. She can see his legs, brown as cypress roots, and she hurries to catch up to him, reaches for his thrashing body, but he ducks around a log and she loses him. Startled creatures — are they fish? — scatter around them. She’s caught for a moment in a patch of feathery, purplish water hyacinth roots, but then she picks him up again, not because she sees him. She hears him, sort of, feels the ripples made by his body. He can’t hide from her for long — the adrenaline jolt from her fear and anger give her an added boost.
They slide over and under obstacles, through undulating forests of weeds, around rocks slimed with algae. It takes forever, it seems, until she catches his ankle in her hand, and they emerge into the blinding sunlight. She blinks water out of her eyes, stares into his startled face, a glittering mass of tail wrapped neatly around his upper arms, tapping his chin like an annoyed cat. Why is he all wrapped up in his own tail? And then it dawns on her.
It’s not his tail, it’s hers.