Charly sat at the counter at the McDougal Coffee Shop, staring down at her plate. It had been a week since she encountered the four tourists by the lighthouse and she's made every attempt to steer clear of them ever since. She'd been pretty successful at it so far, but her luck was about to change that morning.
She was now quietly gazing down at the toast, over-easy eggs, and a small serving of hash browns on a plate in front of her. A steaming cup of herbal tea stood close by. As appetizing as everything looked, she hadn't touched any of it.
She seemed to be torn between what to try first. She just sat there, shifting her gaze from one food item to the other while the kindly coffee shop owner, the fifty-four year young ex-Navy-Seal-turned-business-owner, toweled off some freshly washed white coffee mugs.
"So, uh...think you can do it today, Charly?" Brandon "Mac" McDougal asked as he looked at her indecisive face. He watched as she lifted her mesmerizing turquoise eyes and looked at him. She looked pretty frustrated.
"I'm gonna to give it my best."
"Don't you always?"
"Then the best of my best?"
"Don't you always?"
She gave him a wry look and he chuckled in response.
She looked fresh, pretty, and ultra-healthy to him that morning. She had high cheekbones that had a warm blush by the chill of the morning breeze. Large, well-rested rare-colored eyes returned their full attention on her untouched plate, and were now frowning with that same indecision from before as she stared nonstop down at her plate.
If Charly had been a girl who cared about trivial things like physical beauty, she'd be a true splendor to behold, perhaps even super-model worthy. She was tall, standing at a decent five feet eight inches, and she had a photogenic face. Far from the Vanity-cover supermodel she could be, Charly Meeren was prone to wearing shapeless, unflattering men's clothing, and she rarely showed off any part of her anatomy, even during the hottest days of the year.
"You know, Charly," Mac said, "you really don't need to eat that just cuz other people do. We love ya just the way ya are. You know that, don't you?" He set the mug down with the others as business began to pick up.
"I do. And thanks, Mac," she said with a brief smile.
"Think nuthin' of it."
Mac's waitresses were running themselves ragged now. Strange thing was, as busy as McDougal's was, chairs on either side of Charly at the counter were left vacant. For newcomers, this was strange, especially during the morning rush. For those who have lived all their lives on the island and knew Charly Meeren well, this was how it's always been.
Charly sighed. "I know I can do it, Mac. It's just a matter of getting over my gag reflexes, you know?"
He paused with toweling off some spoons as he frowned at her. "Yeah, I know. How couldn't I, considerin' how it always hits me right here," he pressed a big fist over his heart, "every time you tell me you need to gag when you look at my cookin'."
"You know what I mean." She smiled and shook her head as she picked up her fork and knife just when a group of four newcomers entered the shop. Their presence caught the full and undivided attention of the other guests—except for the one who was still staring down at her plate with a nauseous look on her face.
Ryan was the first to spot Charly at the counter. He smiled as he bent his dark head to his older brother and said something before he nodded into her direction.
Royce raised his head and looked at the pretty girl's slender back. She, unlike everyone else there, appeared oblivious to them.
Mac, however, had spotted them, and he stole a furtive glance at Charly as he absently toweled off another mug. "Friends of yours?" he asked, knowing full well that Charly was fully aware of the four new guests who had entered the establishment.
"Nope," she said without even looking up from her plate.
Royce Masterson, dressed in a warm white cable-knit sweater, sauntered over to the counter, leaving his brother to seat their ladies. He bent forward and braced elbows against the counter as he smiled at the proprietor who smiled back with a cautious gleam in his eyes.
"Two of your specials there with coffee and orange juice, and two skimmed cheese croissants and two fruit bowls, but please hold the whipped cream. Oh, and two English Breakfast teas, please."
Mac smiled and nodded just as one of his young waitresses returned to the counter and he looked at her. "Got that, Stella?" he asked her, and she winked and smiled as she took the tray with dirty dishes to the back.
In the meantime, Charly was quietly sitting with untouched knife and fork as she continued to stare down at the equally untouched food on her plate. This caught the young man's attention and he looked curiously from her delicate profile to her untouched plate and back.
"Are you going to eat that?" he asked with a friendly smile and tone.
Without looking up, she answered, "Yep."
He looked over at Mac who sent him a cold look—clearly disapproving of him striking up a conversation with this Charly Meeren. It peaked his curiosity. He had noticed that everyone on the island appeared to be unusually protective of this Charly Meeren. They didn't divulge anything about her even when he asked outright.
The question is...why? It was also a question he was determined to find an answer for.
"Eventually," she added. Then she sighed as she gave up and pushed the plate from her. She took up her mug of tea and sipped on the eerie green hot liquid with a calm, emotionless, but undeniably beautiful face.
Mac stepped to the counter, reached under it, and pulled out a large white porcelain bowl. It looked like an oversized mortar bowl, the kind you find in apothecaries. It was chockfull of watercress salad with pickled mussels, boiled shrimp, crab, and lobster, and it was covered with plastic wrap.
"Here ya go, Charly," Mac said as he scooted the bowl over to her with a wink.
She set her mug down and smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Mac. I'm gonna best this—one day, and then I'll do your cookin' honor. Promise," she assured him and she smiled as he winked again before he went about his work.
"If you don't like this," he looked down at her untouched plate, "for breakfast, why order it?"
She removed the plastic wrap from the bowl without looking up, and answered, "I guess your mother, while having never told you that it's rude to stare at people, never read Green Eggs and Ham to you as a child?"
"It's a simple, American breakfast, Charly. Nothing out of the ordinary," he pointed out.
She lifted cool, true turquoise eyes and they instantly fascinated him. In the light of day, he could clearly see how crystalline they were and how thick those whipping black eyelashes were that framed them so perfectly. He had initially thought they were "falsies" as Sharon called them, but they were all hers. At any rate, Charly Meeren didn't strike him as a woman who wore cosmetics, let alone false eyelashes.
"You're staring again."
"I apologize for that," he said. "But it's difficult not to."
She slowly frowned as she eyed him as if she doubted his sanity.
"That was a compliment," he said as he turned to lean on one elbow so he could face her.
"Hm." Her lips broke into a smile, but a cool one. "I'm sure your ladyfriend wouldn't approve of you complimenting other women unless, of course, she's accustomed to your habit."
He didn't appear to be offended as he smiled. "Have we met before?"
Mac paused and frowned as he looked from Charly to the handsome tourist.
"Don't think so."
"Are you certain?"
"Yep," she said as she scooped more salad into her mouth and ate with gusto before she took a paper napkin and wiped her lips. As she chewed, she kept her eyes lowered as if she were contemplating something.
"There's something about you that's very familiar. I just can't put my finger on it."
She raised her eyes. "You shouldn't trouble yourself. I'm certain we've never met before."
He'd been smiling all this time, but the longer he looked into her eyes, the more his smile faded. He felt drawn to her in ways he's never felt with any other woman, and he was well aware that an almost tangible tension rose between them, making her uncomfortable—or shy. He wasn't sure which. Both, however, were advantageous to him.
She turned her gaze away and down a little too quickly. He had rattled her. He affected her. In his experience with women, that was a good sign.
"You're staring again."
She gave him a brief but annoyed look. "I don't like to be stared at."
"I apologize," he said quietly. "I'll leave you to your breakfast."
"Thank you," she said with a leveled look, and her gaze followed him as he left the counter and returned to his table and his group before she quietly ignored Mac's curious scrutiny and resumed her breakfast.
Royce was just about to take his seat at the table when the door opened. A rough looking, unshaven man entered, and he looked so scruffy it was as if he hadn't seen a shower in weeks. He was just another scruffy blue-collar fisherman in a big green padded jacket, a dark blue sweater, a matching woolen cap, and faded jeans.
Although the man had whiskers, Royce could see that he was in his early to mid-twenties and it was his scruffy look that made him appear older He didn't really look any different than most of the men on the island, but unlike them, this one intrigued him because of what was intriguing him.
Royce watched as the young man paused just inside the doorway as the glass door behind him slowly closed. He ignored everyone there as his gaze went straight for the counter and fixed on Charly Meeren. Captivated, Royce watched as the guy licked his unshaven lips before he made a beeline for her, oblivious to the chuckling and muted laughter coming from the other guests.
He came to the counter and he leaned against it as he gave her a smile of rows of yellow teeth. He had a somewhat wild look in his blue eyes as he stared at her quiet profile as she sipped her tea, but everyone could see that his gaze softened the moment he set his sights on her.
"I found something that might be interestin' to you," he said softly.
"I doubt it, Gems."
He reached into the unzipped folds of his big jacket to take out whatever he wanted to show her, but before he could, Mac walked over to their side of the counter.
"Hey! Hey! Hey, Gems! Don't you go bringin' in some smelly crap from the beach in my establishment again. There are kids here having their breakfast. I don't wanna have to throw you out on your ass like I did the last time."
Gems glared fearlessly at the burly coffee shop owner. "That was a gen-u-ine pirate's wooden leg you ruined when you threw me out in the rain last time, Mac!"
"It was a piece of your father's beach fencing, Gems, and you know it."
"Aw, what do you know 'bout gen-u-ine sea treasure, huh Mac? Nuthin! You don't know nuthin!" Then he looked at Charly's profile as she scooped a fork full of salad between her lips, keeping her eyelashes down. "But you do, dontcha, Charly?" He smiled warmly. "I knows you do. I knows you know good, gen-u-ine sea treasures when you sees them, huh? I knows it cuz everyone knows you and your kids are gen-u-ine sea treasures, too."
Mac growled, "That's enough, Gems."
"You heard Mac," Charly said as she lifted her unemotional eyes. "That's enough."
Gems frowned for a moment and didn't seem to understand the unmistakable message both Mac and Charly were sending him with their stern looks. Then he turned his head and scanned the dining room, and his gaze stopped on a group of four sitting and looking back at him.
Charly arched an eyebrow as she watched a dawning fill his face. "You don't want to give our mainlander guests any reason to believe you're not all there, do you, Gems?"
He turned his gaze on her and he looked wounded. "Don't say that. Not you, Charly. You know I know what I know." He nodded as he reached into his coat and pulled out a perfectly smooth oval-shaped dark blue and black stone the size of an ostrich egg.
At the Masterson table, Ryan's fork dropped from his fingers in surprise. His brother frowned as he looked across the establishment and at the scruffy man holding a very familiar looking sea stone.
"Do you see what I see, Royce?" Ryan asked without taking his eyes off Gems as he held the large stone carefully on top of two somewhat unclean palms while he looked at Charly Meeren with a hopeful expression. She, for her part, appeared to be ignoring him as she smiled at a waitress who set down a second mug of tea.
"I see it, Ryan."
"It looks exactly like the sea stone I lost years ago, only a different color...and bigger."
Back at the counter, Charly was fighting to hide her temper. She was incensed that Gems had decided to come to the coffee shop that morning of all mornings, and embarrass her like that. Although she was certain he didn't have a clue, his voice was loud and it carried, and she had no doubt the mainlanders had heard what he said.
She raised calm eyes and looked at Gem's eager face. Then she slowly shook her head as she said, "What are ya doin', Gems?"
"I wanna know whatcha think about this, Charly? Think it's gen-u-ine?"
"And you thought it was a good idea to bring it in here? Now?"
"What am I 'spose to do when you won't talk to me out there?"
Her anger ebbed and her eyes filled with deep sympathy as she gazed into his wild blue eyes for a few silent moments. "You've gotta stop it, Gems," she whispered compassionately. "You've gotta stop with this obsession or it'll drive you insane."
"Too late." He dropped his eyes and looked at the stone in the palms of his hands. "I-I can't. I'd tried. I really did." He shook his head. "But I can't anymore, Charly."
"You've got to try harder."
He stared at the giant rock in the palms of his hands. He swallowed a few times and cleared his throat. "I...I read in Cap'n Steven's log about the Sacred Stone of Sea Sirens."
A look of profound sadness fell over Charly's face as she looked away. He wasn't going to listen to her. "Gems—"
"—He gave a good description, too." Then he lifted his gaze and looked at her quiet but taut profile. "So whatcha think, huh Charly? Does this look like the Sacred Stone of Sea Sirens?"
"You wanna know what I think, Gems?" she asked softly as she looked at him and gazed into his eyes as she wiped her mouth.
"Yeah," he said, nodding like a ten-year-old. "You knows I do, Charly."
"I think you need to put that thing away."
"You knows that's not what I wanna hear—"
"—Put it away, Gems." She fixed him with a firm look. "Now."
He hesitated for a second, but then he nodded and slipped the stone back into some deep inner pocket.
"Thank you," she said.
"But you ain't told me what you think about it—"
"—I think," she said firmly, cutting him off, "that you need to stop sticking your nose in all those old moldy log books. It's not healthy." Then she tossed the napkin on the bowl and slid off her stool with a determined look. She had enough of him and this situation, and she damned well knew they were the center of attention.
She made to walk away but then she paused when he stepped closer. She snapped up her head as he slowly brought his face close to hers. A hush descended over the establishment just as Mac returned from the kitchen and frowned when he saw Gems standing so close to Charly.
"I'd seen ya, Charly," Gems whispered beneath his breath. "You know I'd seen ya." He shook his head. "I need to see ya again. Just one more time." Then he suddenly grabbed her arms and she stiffened as she glared up at him. "Just show me one more time—"
"—Hey, Gems! You cut it out now!" Mac admonished from the other side of the counter, but when Gems didn't appear to hear him, he cursed beneath his breath and threw the dishtowel aside as he stalked around the counter. He suddenly stopped in his tracks when a taller man beat him to Gems's side.
The mainlander had grabbed Gems by his arm and snapped him around before he shoved him back against the counter with enough force that it could done Gems' back some serious damage!
"Don't!" Charly cried as she looked angrily at the tall mainlander. "How could you! You hurt him! You've couldn't injured him!"
"I barely touched him," Royce defended.
"He isn't as strong as guys like you," she said with an upset frown before she turned her attention on Gems and the hardness vanished from her face and was replaced with concern. "Are you all right, Gems?"
"I guess," Gems said as he slowly straightened. Then he stared at her troubled face. "They don't know, Charly. They don't know that I'd seen ya so they don't understand," he said beneath his breath as he looked at her with wild eyes, not seeing how she swept her nervous gaze around the suddenly silent cafe. "It's true what they say. It's all true. You're more beautiful than any of those paintings—"
"—That's enough, Gems!" Mac snarled as he grabbed Gems by back of his collar and shoved him into the direction of the door. "Get out! Get out now!"
"Mac! Stop it!" Charly cried, but when she made to shoot to come to Gems' aid, a strong arm snatched around her waist and pulled her back. "Please, Mac, stop. He doesn't know what he's saying—"
"—He needs to shut his mouth, Charly."
"I know. I know. But please don't hurt him," she begged softly.
"Don't you understand, Charly?" Mac said as he looked at her. "Him spittin' tales like that in front of mainlanders are gonna make them think we islanders are nothing but a bunch of inbred kooks!"
"It doesn't matter what they think, Mac," Charly said. "People are gonna talk no matter what. I just don't want Gems hurt. You know he can't help himself."
As if he snapped out of some trance, Gems looked around the coffee shop with big and wild blue eyes. His whisking gaze finally landed on Charly and the tall dark man standing behind her. His face went apple-red as he looked at her. "I'm so sorry, Charly—"
"—I know," she said softly. "I know, Gems."
He nodded once before he quickly turned about-face and, with head down, quickly exited the silent coffee shop.
It was then when Charly realized that the mainlander still had his arms around her. She twisted her head and looked coldly up at him as he stared down at her with an unreadable look. "Kindly take your hands off of me," she said, but didn't wait for him to respond as she shook herself free and stepped away from him, turning and glaring angrily up at him. "Don't ever touch me again."
"My apologies," Royce said as he inclined his head. "I just wanted to help—"
"—Then keep your hands to yourself."
Royce's jaw went rigid as a tic appeared in his cheek, but he inclined his head. "I'll keep that in mind."
"See that you do," she said before she turned and headed for the door and quickly exited the coffee shop.
Ryan had gotten out of his seat and made his way to his brother. "Well, that was strange," he said as he looked over his shoulder, seeing the last of Charly Meeren before she disappeared out of view. Then he turned and looked at his brother who was still staring at the door. "What was that all about?"
"She don't like people touching her," Mac told them, and waited for both young men to look at him. "If I were you two, I'd make it a point to remember that."
Royce arched a black eyebrow as he looked at the big burly man before he turned and returned to his table.
Ryan smiled at the burly man and nodded. "We're not trying to make waves around here, Mac," he said.
"Then you four just steer clear of our Charly."
Ryan didn't respond. He just gave the man a last smile before he turned and followed his brother back to their table.
Mac watched until the mainlanders took their seat, and then he shook his head before he turned and went back behind the counter. "They're gonna be trouble for her, Stella," he muttered beneath his breath as he passed the blonde waitress.
"Yeah. I think you're right, Mac. The sooner they're gone, the better."
"For them, yeah," Mac said with a last frown across the coffee shop.
"What a nutcase, huh?" Sharon said as she shook back her platinum blonde locks.
"I don't know, Sharon," Cheryl said as she smiled and shrugged. "I mean, he looked as if he really believed what he was saying."
"All nutcases do, Cheryl," she said wryly. "I mean, didn't you get what he was trying to say? He was implying that that Charly girl is some kind of sea creature. A Siren."
Sharon frowned curiously. "Siren?"
Ryan's dark eyebrows gathered as he looked doubtfully at the elegant blonde. "Is that what you got out of that conversation? That that Gems-guy believes Charly is some kind of mermaid?"
To his surprise, both blondes looked at him incredulously, and to his astonishment, they both asked at the same time, "You didn't?"
Later that day, Royce stood on the deck of their yacht and looked out toward the horizon. The vessel was anchored in the simple harbor where other luxury yachts were moored, and except for Charly Meeren's rowboat, apparently all ocean vessels were required to be confined to this area.
He was smoking a cigarette as he peered at the horizon, squinting eyes against the smoke and the setting sun. The warm glow of the sun reflected in the peaceful rippling waves of the ocean and it produced quite a spectacular seascape, but he saw none of it. He was too deep in thought to enjoy the remarkable view before him.
His dark hair blew gently around his proud, high-held head as he let the aromatic smoke slowly leave his full lips. Behind him, his younger brother calmly walked over to the railing and came to stand beside him, slipping hands into his pockets as he looked off into the horizon as well.
"Where are the ladies?" he asked his younger brother.
"Down in the galley trying to whip up dinner," Ryan answered with a chuckle, and shrugged when his brother twisted his head and arched eyebrows. "Yeah. I know. We'll be getting the message soon enough that they'll want to go out to dinner." Then he looked curiously at his brother as he watched him quietly return his attention to the horizon. "Strange day today, wasn't it?"
"What part struck you as the most strange?"
Royce arched an eyebrow as he looked incredulously at his younger brother. "What part wasn't?"
"Well, most of it had been, but what struck me as the strangest occurrence today was the fact that the ladies appeared to have heard what neither you nor I heard, and what was never said."
"Are you talking about what happened at the coffee shop this morning?"
"That's exactly what I'm talking about." Ryan shook his head. "They both believed that that Gems fellow implied that Charly Meeren was a mermaid." Then he chuckled and shook his head. "Why on Earth did they get that impression? That Gems fellow said nothing of the kind. He never even implied such a thing, either."
Royce wasn't laughing. "I recall reading somewhere that sea creatures, or sea sirens, are female, and that only female humans can understand them on some sort of psychic level because they're uniquely attuned to them due to their gender."
"You can't be serious!" Ryan cried out incredulously. "You don't seriously think that Charly Meeren is a...mermaid, do you?"
He looked at his younger brother as he flicked his cigarette butt away. "There's something about Charly, Ry, and I aim to find out what that is."
To be continued
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Jun 16, 2018 in romance