Skin Deep excerpt

Skin Deep 72dpi

Chapter 1

Cold March Saturday mornings were made for sleeping late. Garland Durrell knew that. But here she was, snuggled under her down quilt, eyes resolutely shut against the coronas of light around her windows—and wide awake.

She would have been happily snoozing if it hadn’t been for a freak storm that no one had predicted blowing in off the Atlantic during the night. She’d never heard the wind make sounds like that, shrieking and howling so fiercely that she’d half-dreamed it was trying to smash her windows and seize her. Not the best way to spend the first night of the rest of her life in Mattaquason, on Cape Cod’s outer arm. If she believed in omens— but she didn’t. Not anymore. Her wedding day had been gloriously sunny, and look how her marriage had ended up.

Though the storm had screamed itself back out to sea some time before dawn, she’d only been able to doze fitfully since then…and now, not at all. Well, if she couldn’t sleep, then she might as well be up and about doing something about unpacking all the boxes stacked around the house.

She threw aside the quilt and went to the bank of windows to open the curtains. Past the grass and a long, low dune the beach’s creamy white sand spread enticingly before her. Maybe a walk before she began excavating her life out of moving boxes and reassembling it into its new form would be a good idea?

Garland yanked off her nightshirt and dressed quickly in jeans and a turtleneck sweater and a heavy, violet-colored flannel shirt on which she’d appliquéd a Compass Rose quilt square, along with a down vest. She almost ran down the stairs and through the garage where her little sailing dinghy sat on its trailer. Bigger sailboats were handsomer, but this one was so much closer to the wind and water, so much closer to what really mattered about sailing. Derek had always called it “Garland’s toy boat.” His own tastes ran to motorboats with more horsepower than was decent—and damn it, why did everything have to remind her of Derek? Had moving to this house been a mistake? Should she have sold it and gone someplace where memories wouldn’t leap out at her unexpectedly like ugly Halloween spooks?

She slammed the garage door behind her and strode across the terrace to the back lawn. Once away from the protection of the house, the wind hit her like a fist to the stomach. But the sky was a soft, milky blue and the sunshine was so bright that instead of scooting back inside she paused to breathe deeply, expanding her chest as far as it would go.

Past the lawn the beach was still damp and smooth from the receding tide. Off to her left, the long, narrow finger of Monomoyick Island poked into the ocean off the end of Cape Cod, pointing south toward Nantucket. The water was deep blue and choppy this morning but sparkling in the sun, making her squint as she stepped onto the sand.

Beachcombing after a storm was fun. Smashed lobster pots weren’t uncommon, or broken oars, or other detritus tossed or lost off fishing boats. But sometimes the oddest things washed up. Once she’d found a waterlogged, two-foot long Winnie-the-Pooh half-buried in the sand, its red shirt faded to rose pink. And after another storm, a lacy, bright fuchsia bra from Victoria’s Secret, size 46 DD. That find had sent her best friend in Mattaquason, Kathy Hayes, into gales of laughter, speculating whether any of the local fishermen had a secret lingerie fetish.

The memory made Garland smile. Kathy hadn’t been home when she called last night. Out on a date, perhaps? Kathy often lamented the dearth of eligible men—whom she defined as “over six feet and without a substance abuse problem”—who lived year-round on the Cape, but maybe she’d found someone new. Hopefully she’d be in later, just in case Garland found the panties to match the bra.

Kathy had been delighted when she’d called to tell her that she’d be moving to the Cape. “Without Derek, I’m assuming,” she’d said in the dry tone she always used when talking about Garland’s husband. “It’s about damn time. He was smothering you, Garland. Every year when you came down for the summer, you looked a little paler and flatter. No, don’t laugh. It was true. He was a mistake, and it was time you cut your losses and started over. So when are you going to start quilting again? I told you, I’m keeping a space in the gallery for you, and Mrs. Feinberg asked again last summer if you’d made anything new.”

Starting quilting again. She thought of the boxes of fabric and threads and the new long-arm quilting machine waiting for her at the house. She was free to create with cloth again—free of Derek’s disapproval and his feigned dust allergies. She could festoon the house with fat quarters and leave pads of graph paper and piles of colored pencils in every room in case inspiration struck, and no one would care. It would be wonderful.

A sharp, barking call made her shade her eyes and stare out at the water. Was that a seal? Sometimes in summer she would see them a little way off the beach, lounging on the sandbar at low tide. Yes, there they were—three, no, four seals swimming parallel to the shore and looking at her with their liquid brown eyes. She’d always loved to watch them with their whiskery, inquiring faces, so at home in the water.

A house guest had once given her a fancifully illustrated children’s book about seals who could take off their skins and dance on the beach on moonlit nights in the form of beautiful men and women. Selkies, they were called. She often thought about them on the full moon nights in July and August, but Derek had never wanted to use them as a pretext for a romantic walk on to the beach. How well she remembered the patronizing smile he would give her as he told her to ‘run along and enjoy herself’ while he logged into his portfolio account.

One of the seals barked again. A gull, handsome in its sober gray and white feathers, cackled as it landed a few dozen yards up the beach before her. Something edible must have been tossed up in the storm, for another gull was already there.

Garland blinked away the tears in her eyes brought by the wind and squinted at the sand. There was something on the beach ahead—something large and pale, almost blending into the sand itself. The two gulls regarded it quizzically, as if wondering if it were tasty or not. She took three more steps, then froze.

The something was a naked body sprawled on its stomach, partly buried in the sand.

Chapter 2

Garland’s knees felt like they’d been turned to water, and it was all she could do to keep standing. A thin voice in her head was screaming Ohmygodohmygod adeadbodydeadbodydead—

Another gull landed next to the first two and joined in the examination, creeping closer to what she realized was the figure’s face, turned away from her. Abruptly, strength returned to her legs.

“Go away!” she shouted, and ran at them. The birds leapt into the air in an explosion of wings, one muttering what sounded like “Aw, jeez, lady!” in Seagull.

Garland knelt by the body. It was a child, probably no more than three or four years old, with shaggy light brown hair partly obscuring its face. How had a child ended up out here like this, and in this condition? A network of deep cuts, purple with bruising and caked with dried blood and sand, crisscrossed its back.

She brushed the hair aside and pressed her fingertips to its throat. A faint but steady pulse beat there. Not dead! She scrambled out of her vest and took off her flannel shirt, then turned the child over…and gasped in horror. More cuts, punctuated with a few deeper gashes covered his torso. She wrapped her shirt around him, then rose and looked around wildly at the empty beach, sweating though she now only wore a turtleneck and jeans. The seals were still there, watching her. She hoped for an irrational second that they’d swim into shore, take off their skins, and help her deal with this. She knelt again, slipped her arms under him, and picked him up. He felt light and insubstantial as she cradled him against her, like a child made of air.

“Poor baby,” she crooned. “You’re going to be all right. We’ll get you—”

“No!” a hoarse voice shouted.

Garland nearly dropped the boy as she whirled around. Twenty feet up the beach a man, equally naked and battered-looking, was climbing to his feet from where he’d evidently been collapsed on the sand. She’d been so concerned about the boy that she hadn’t even seen him.

The man stood for a second, swaying, then staggered toward her, grimacing as if in pain. The wind blew his hair, just like the boy’s, around his face. “Give me back my son,” he growled, reaching for the child.

“I’m sorry—I d-didn’t see—I was just trying to help him,” Garland stammered. His son! What had happened to the two of them? How had they ended up on her beach in this condition? The man’s muscular body was cut and gashed in the same horrible pattern as the boy’s, and patches of dried blood on his upper lip hinted at a freshly broken nose.

The man ignored her, his eyes narrowed fiercely above the purple bruises on his high cheekbones. But when his hands touched the flannel of her shirt wrapped around the boy’s frail form he froze. A look of wonder replaced his anger, and his eyes opened wide as he stared at her so that she could see they were a light, almost golden brown, and unnaturally bright, as if he were feverish.

“What are you?” he whispered.

What was she? “Uh…I’m Garland Durrell. I live just up the beach.” She nodded her head back toward her house. “I was out for a walk and found—”

“Conn. His name is Conn.” The man still clutched the shirt and stared at her, not seeming to notice the fact that he was naked on a beach in forty-degree weather with a brisk wind. “Are you a man?”

She blinked. Couldn’t he tell the difference? “Um, no. I’m a woman. A female.”

He shrugged as if she were the one who’d misunderstood. “Yes. A female man. How did you know we were here? Did you hear…” He trailed into silence and glanced over his shoulder at the small waves slapping the sand.

“You’re hurt. Can I help you?” She had to get this poor child out of the cold—and his father off his feet. Oh, why hadn’t she grabbed her phone off her bedside table? She could have called 911 already and had help here in a few minutes.

“A healer. Conn must see a healer,” he said.

“A healer? Do you mean a doctor? I think we need to get you both to the hospital.” Maybe English wasn’t his first language. Or might he be delirious?

“What is ‘the hospital’? I want a healer.” He frowned. “Don’t your people have healers?”

Oh dear. “Yes, we have healers,” she said carefully, and looked down again at the child in her arms. His pale, drawn face decided her. Strangers or not, he needed help. “If you’re all right with coming to my house, I’ll get one as quickly as I can.”

“Wait.” The man reached up and touched her cheek. “I think…you are not Mahtahdou’s,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “I don’t know what you are, but you aren’t his.” His shoulders drooped. “Rest, in a safe place—if only for a little while…”

Garland flinched but didn’t move. His touch was like testing, like dipping a hand in bath water to check its temperature. Amazingly, his fingers were warm and supple. “Yes, rest,” she agreed. “Will you let me carry Conn? Can you walk? It’s not that far.” Would he be able to make it back to her house without collapsing, so she could call 911?

The man nodded and let his hand fall to touch a fold of her purple shirt. “You’ll keep him safe in this.”

His sudden trust was oddly touching, if bewildering. At least he’d decided to cooperate. “Of course I will. Speaking of which—that’s my vest on the sand there. You can put it on. It might help a little.”

“Help what?” He blinked and bent to pick up the down vest she’d stripped off.

Then he must be numb and couldn’t feel the cold any more. But what about his hand when he’d touched her just now? “Um, never mind. But you can carry it for me.” She hesitated, and looked at him. “By the way, what’s your name?”

He hesitated too, just for a few seconds “Alasdair. My name is Alasdair.”

She waited, but he didn’t volunteer a last name. “All right, Alasdair. Let’s go.”

© 2016 Marissa Doyle