This book will release on January 26, 2021 and I’m so thrilled to share this chapter. Buy or borrow the book here: https://amzn.to/34gqTrj
Today, Hazel Green was quitting her job.
Just as soon as she got the chance to turn in her notice.
Hazel raced up to the customs desk at the Brooklyn Marina, heaved the tote of men’s clothes onto the service desk, and panted, “Sorry I’m late. I’m here to pick up my merman.”
The customs agent paused her typing. She had the dark brows and unimpressed gaze of a Latina action star.
“I was ready to pick him up yesterday, but I guess the undersea currents pushed him off course.” Hazel fumbled her iced nonfat triple-shot caramel latte with whip onto the counter, quested in her documents bag under her neatly printed two weeks’ notice, and yanked out the paperwork. “You know how that is. Or maybe you don’t. I don’t. Anyway, here is his customs application, the verification card from when he was last in the country, his ID, his measurements, his blood type, clothes—”
She straightened. “Hazel Green, program director of MerMatch.com.”
The reflection in the tilted mirror behind the desk showed a big chunk of arugula from her tofu curry quinoa wrap stuck to her front teeth.
She rubbed her finger over her front teeth. “I was supposed to be here an hour ago, but the express stopped, and I didn’t get my boss’s call until—”
“Hazel Green?” the customs agent repeated.
“Did you want my ID?” Hazel pulled off her mini backpack—so stylish last season—and searched among the lip balm, sunscreen, aspirin, facial tissue, earplugs, second earplugs, mini notebook, erasable pens, third earplugs, and a hundred loyalty cards that belonged in her already-bursting wallet.
The customs agent took her ID and typed.
Hazel texted her boss she’d made it to customs, then scrolled through Slack messages about her Young Entrepreneurs meetup. Gah, it was past one. Could she grab the merman, stash him at a hotel, and get home with time to change before the meetup? There was nothing wrong with her work blazer, but—
Was that a splotch?
Hazel set down the iced coffee that she didn’t remember picking up and sipping—although her hand was wet and the ice level was undeniably lower—and smoothed her blazer.
It was a splotch.
How long had that been there?
She rummaged in her mini pack and dabbed the mystery substance with a depleted tube of Miracle Off Stain Remover. The splotch bled out. This was not as miraculous as the ads would have her believe. Of course, she was the one who insisted on an eggshell blazer over a taupe ribbed tank and matching skort, which was asking for trouble.
As a little girl, she’d dreamed of leaving grubby Idaho behind for clean, light, shining wood floors and sipping coffee while wearing a white linen dress. Apparently, she wanted to live in Iceland.
Instead, she lived in a 400-foot square box studio in sweltering New York a few blocks from a market where she could buy, among other things, langoustine, dried fish, and skyr.
It was almost the same.
The customs agent ran a metal detector wand over Hazel’s bags and stepped around the counter. “Place your hands on the desk and spread your legs.”
Hazel did as she was told. “Um, I’m just picking him up. I’m not a terrorist.”
The customs agent waved the wand lightly over Hazel. It beeped at her belt buckle.
“I’m harmless. I swear.”
The customs agent returned behind her desk. “Leave everything on the end of the counter.”
“Okay, but he needs his clothes, right? The mer usually swim naked.”
The agent did not grace her question with an answer.
Hazel finished her coffee and tossed the empty container, then did as requested. In front of her was a door covered with frosted glass.
“Including your phone,” the customs agent said.
Hazel tucked her lifeline into her mini pack. Her empty hands hung weirdly at her sides. “We’re the good guys. I promise.”
The customs agent gave her a stony glance. There are no good guys.
“We are,” Hazel said.
The frosted door clicked and opened. A stout, unsmiling agent looked her up and down. “Hazel Green?”
The second agent led her through a narrow maze of fabric-coated walls and into a small conference room. He shut the door to seal her in, then sat and thumbed through his files like a harassed clerk looking through old fines to find the one she’d forgotten to pay.
Hazel perched on the edge of her seat. “I’m really just here to do a pickup.”
The agent put on reading glasses and perused her application.
A small window gave a view into another conference room.
Inside, a shirtless man sat facing away from her. He emitted a deadly aura.
Shaggy timber wolf-gray hair brushed the base of his neck where it met bulging, capable shoulders. A cord was tied around his neck. A necklace? His angular back rippled with muscles. Iridescent gray tattoos slashed his body in geometric, tribal lines.
She’d met a lot of mermen in this job. The all-seafood swimmer’s diet toned their warrior physiques to the peak. And this guy? Whoa.
He turned slightly as though hearing her breathe through the thick glass. The angle of his jaw was sharp, and his nose was honed like a blade.
A frisson of awareness uncoiled in her center.
She held her breath.
Something about this one was different.
The customs agent lowered the application and looked at her over the rims of his reading glasses. “Hazel Green.”
She jumped. “Yes, that’s me. I’ve never had another name, except when I was a kid and my softball coach called me Green, which is still my name. Yes.”
She laced her fingers. Relaxed. She was totally relaxed. “Anyway, how can I help you?”
“What’s he”—the customs agent jerked his stubby thumb at the merman in the other conference room—“doing in New York?”
“Oh, didn’t my boss tell you? It’s no secret. He’s here to find his soul mate.”
“You know the story. The mermen are endangered?”
He looked at her like he didn’t know the story.
Which was insane because everybody knew.
“Like, a thousand years ago, the mer and humans lived in harmony, but this mysterious Great Catastrophe sank their ancient city, Atlantis, and made the mer go into hiding,” Hazel said. “All their mermaids died out, so they had to make a secret pact with women on isolated ‘sacred’ islands, and everything was fine again until the islands sank or modernized or whatever. Five years ago, the mer got to the brink of extinction, and so the one warrior, Torun, broke their secrecy pact. He claimed a woman from Oregon who was on a treasure-hunting expedition in Cancun.”
The customs agent pursed his lips.
“As anyone would,” she said. “And that sparked this whole underwater revolution. Most of the undersea world still clings to their secrecy pact, but the rebels founded a new Atlantis by the wreckage of the old and sent up their warriors to meet modern brides. That’s where I come in.”
“You come in how?”
“I, or really my boss, introduce the warriors to women until they find the one whose soul resonates with theirs. The merman gives his bride his Sea Opal. She drinks the elixir and transforms into a mermaid.”
“You ever tried it?” he asked.
“The elixir? My boss gave me some for a headache. It tastes like tap water.”
“Well, they originally made elixir in the sacred island churches by steeping Sea Opals for centuries, and somebody figured out how to make it a lot faster in an Instant Pot using New York’s finest.”
“And you drank it.”
“Yeah. They sell it as a health drink, you know? Like the Sea Opal powder? They put it in cosmetics, supplements, you name it. The FDA is reviewing miracle cures for cancer and all sorts.”
“And you didn’t turn into a mer person?”
“Yeah, because it only gives you a health boost unless it’s activated by your merman soul mate.”
“He claims you with a kiss.”
“That’s it? You get a gem, chug some tap water, smooch a guy, and you get fins?”
“Did you want to try the elixir?” She reached for her missing backpack, then folded her hands again. “I had a bottle in case we run into Lotar’s soul mate on the subway home.”
“You’re carrying it around to shove on some innocent commuter?”
“Only his soul mate. Their souls have to resonate. Otherwise, it’s just tap water.”
The agent frowned at his paperwork. “So how does that work?”
“Resonance? Your souls vibrate, you know, like a musical instrument or something. Honestly, you should ask my boss about this stuff. She matches people on dates. I just do the grunt work. Filing. Coffee. Grunting.”
He did not crack a smile.
She ran her tongue over her front teeth. No more lettuce.
The customs agent tapped his file. “You’re sending off the citizens of New York with these mermen from another race and you don’t know how any of it works?”
“It’s like love at first sight. How does that work? Nobody knows, but it happens.”
He didn’t look like he believed in love at first sight.
“Well, trust me, it happens all the time at normal dating agencies.”
“So you know this MerMatch isn’t normal.”
“Okay, I said normal, but I meant human-only. The mer aren’t that different.”
He blinked slowly.
“They’re not,” she insisted.
God, why hadn’t Dannika waited a few extra days to go on her cruise? She’d have already assured the agent that everything was fine and even convinced him to pledge his support for their cause.
“Even underwater, the mer have two legs. They look like free divers with gills. And they shift to real humans on land, you know?”
He thwacked the file. “What I know is that a couple thousand years ago, they pissed us off and we shoved them back in the water. And that’s where they stayed—”
“Except for their secret covenant with brides on sacred islands to keep their population going.”
“—until five years ago, they popped out of the ocean and started applying for green cards.”
“Well, that was because their sacred islands emptied, and they had no more brides. It’s all over Facebook. You can read about it anywhere.”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “You know what else you can read about anywhere? That they’re monsters who kidnap women.”
“That’s fake propaganda to make you hate mermen.”
“It’s not propaganda. It was my morning memo.”
“But it’s from the Sons of Hercules, right?”
He did not confirm or deny.
“So first of all, the Sons of Hercules are a terrorist hate group. They’re being investigated. They started out as a bunch of disgruntled college boys who’d rather blame mermen for their lack of girlfriends instead of washing their clothes and taking a shower.”
“Unwashed college kids didn’t shut the borders to mermen.”
“Right, they switched from sniping to lobbying, and that’s been way more successful.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Lotar was here before they stopped the visas, so his paperwork is still valid.”
The customs agent leaned back and crossed his arms.
“Look.” She spread her hands. “This is probably the last time you’ll see him. The Atlantis mermen are building a big platform in the mid-Atlantic right over their city. When it’s done, we’re going to have a giant welcome party. Everyone’s invited. All the mermen, any potential brides. Even you.”
“And then they won’t have to come to the US to meet humans. That’s good, right?”
“It’s good unless I let him in and he goes and does something on my watch. Then, I’m the schmuck who let him in.”
“I won’t let him do anything, and I’ll be around him the whole time. In fact, I won’t take my eyes off him.”
The customs agent puckered his lips and scribbled a note on the application.
She patted her pockets for her…no phone.
These conference rooms sure were basic. Industrial carpet, soundproofed walls.
The pen scritch-scritched against the paper.
His wristwatch ticked.
She did not turn and obsessively study the merman in the other conference room.
“You can blame me for him being here,” Hazel said. “The party was my idea, although I never thought my boss would actually go for it.”
He kept writing.
Hazel rubbed her sweaty palms on her skort. “Traditional mer cities hate that their secret existence was revealed. Even after five years, they’re mad at Atlantis. So I thought, why not show them what they’ve been missing? We’ll have a big party, invite everyone, and the traditionalists will see how great it is to have families and kids again. So now Lotar has to swim all over the ocean to deliver the invitations. It’s an ancient pilgrimage called the ‘All-Cities Gyre.’ That’s gyre with a ‘g,’ not a ‘j.’ Like gyrate. Gyre.”
He didn’t look up. “And what’s this guy Lotar doing in New York?”
“I just said. Oh, do you mean literally? Well, I’m going to give him pants.” She gestured over her shoulder at the bag she’d abandoned at the counter. “We’re going to leave here—hopefully the express is running again—and we’ll look over potential brides, set up a couple coffee dates, I’m going to turn in my two weeks’ notice, and then—”
“Two weeks? You’re quitting?”
“Uh…” Way to derail the conversation, Hazel! “Yeah.”
She was going to screw up.
Her boss had been urging Hazel to take over the party, but Hazel couldn’t fill Dannika’s Louboutins. She couldn’t lobby senators or enchant diplomats. She couldn’t even reason with customs agents.
But she was no coward.
And saying she was afraid of being promoted to her boss’s position kind of sounded like a coward.
Which she wasn’t.
So…yeah, she wasn’t cowardly, she was quitting to pursue her dreams. This was supposed to be a temp job. She was a future independent businesswoman, not an office worker at a dating agency.
But she could imagine what the customs agent would think if she said, I’m quitting a perfectly fine job before a big promotion so I can be poor and desperate when I start a business. Any business. With no prospects, no safety net, and no ideas. I’m going to be an entrepreneur. Somehow.
“The Sons of Hercules are a huge reason,” she said instead. “When you think the mermen are monsters, remember that the Sons of Hercules sabotaged my boss’s airplane. She nearly died. Who wants to work a job where you have to fight terrorists all day?”
The customs agent stared.
“It’s not for everyone.” She laced her fingers again. “So… Is there anything else you need to know?”
“You left his ‘leaving’ date blank.”
“Because it’ll be the instant he meets his bride.”
“Oh yeah. Mermen see their brides and then?” Hazel snapped. “They act. If his soul mate can go, he’ll leave the next day.”
“And if she can’t?”
She shrugged. “The All-Cities Gyre takes two years. The platform’s supposed to be finished in two years. You do the math.”
The agent scribbled and muttered. “And if he doesn’t leave, it won’t be your problem.”
Well, that was true.
After years of steady raises and promotions, Hazel was leaving it all to scramble again. That was the subject of tonight’s Young Entrepreneur’s meetup. Her friends were bringing tons of leads. By the time dinner finished, if she didn’t have a new business or a new job lined up, she wasn’t trying hard enough.
The door to the merman’s room opened. The desk agent emptied the shoulder tote on the table. Her mouth moved, but no sound penetrated the thick glass. She carried away the empty tote and closed the door again.
The warrior pulled out red Bermuda shorts, a blue button-down shirt, and yellow flip-flops. It was the standard uniform for a merman, but he handled the clothes Hazel had folded like an NBA pro palming a basketball. His ordinary-looking hands were actually the size of dinner plates.
And every motion was precise. He had a predator’s grace. Like how he stood and stepped into the shorts. His lower back rippled and his buttocks flexed with concealed power as he slightly turned and revealed his—
She jerked her unwary eyes away.
Her heart raced.
The mer were totally comfortable nude.
But she had a little respect for privacy.
The agent led her out of the small room, through the maze, and left her at the front counter. “Good luck with your resignation.”
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.”
The agent departed.
Hazel collected her backpack, document bag, and the empty shoulder tote. Now that the interview was over, her stomach growled. She was starving. Her phone! She ordered another latte from the nearest coffee cart while she waited outside the frosted door for her warrior.
Was it almost three? Already?
Maybe she could skip the office and boot Lotar out at a hotel—
She had to submit her notice today, and she had to do it in person. It would go through their secure office courier and be recorded by the Mer-Human Foundation before Dannika could talk her out of quitting.
And Hazel shouldn’t feel bad about it. She wasn’t leaving them in a lurch. They’d have two weeks to find a new program manager.
She’d work until the very last minute. She’d even work from home. She’d already spent free time she should have used to start her new business reviewing bride applicants and picking out the perfect candidates for Lotar.
Dannika had said he didn’t talk much, so his bride would have to be smart, gorgeous, and articulate to convince a bunch of enemy kings to let go of their old grudges and RSVP.
Hazel had poured over the profiles with three highlighters starring communications majors, corporate sales leaders, and marine biologists. There were so many highly qualified women trying to depart from Hazel’s dream jobs to seek an adventure—and of course true love—that she had her pick.
Their accomplishments alternately inspired and demotivated her. So many women had made their dreams come true. Why not Hazel?
So, with this two weeks’ notice, she was reaching for her dreams.
This was it.
This time, she was serious.
No one would stand in her way of quitting MerMatch.
She was leaving the fascinating world of the deadly, gorgeous, tattooed warriors behind her.
Hazel took a deep breath and pep-talked herself as the door to the customs office opened.
A rugged wall of tattooed masculinity filled the doorway, angular and powerful. He fixed on her like a shark scenting blood in the water.
A shocking wave of heat rolled through her body.
Gray irises evaluated her. Iridescent threads the same color as his tattoos glimmered like secrets only she could see.
He ambled out like a lone wolf, his gray eyes flitting right and left, seeking and dismissing threats. Capability oozed from his pores. The dark and light streaks of gray hair made him look older and younger at the same time, and his guarded lips concealed mysteries.
He stopped in front of her.
And emitted total, silent dominance.
Throbbing awareness pulsed into her veins. Could he sense it? His eyes caressed her body, and the heat of his nearness prickled her with a strange desire. Hunger licked across her skin with icy fire.
She swallowed. “Hi. I’m Hazel. You’re expecting me.”
She started to reach out her hand to shake his.
But the mer didn’t touch. They had a thing about only touching their brides.
She brushed her hair, her nape, the splotch on her lapel. “Um, nice to meet you.”
His gaze softened on her, then fixed on a passing customs agent with sharp awareness.
To her, he was a friend.
He would tear their throats out.
Her phone buzzed.
She jumped and upset her document bag. It tilted, still open, and papers cascaded out.
He moved faster than her eyes could follow. Bag in one hand, spilled documents captured in the other. One paper fluttered past him. He switched hands and snatched the escaped document out of the air.
The whole save was smooth, silent, and took less than a second.
“Whoa.” She fumbled the bag and documents from his deft fingers, never brushing even by accident, and cinched it down. “Thanks. You saved me twenty minutes. Oh.” She took the last paper from his hand.
Her two weeks’ notice. Still crisp. His midair catch hadn’t even creased the paper.
She slid it in with the rest, crinkling it slightly, and snapped the bag closed.
Her phone buzzed again.
He focused on it.
“My coffee order is ready. I skipped lunch.” She coughed awkwardly. “Did you want something? I owe you, seriously. I’m running so short on time right now. I could buy you a croissant or a bagel.” Or a slab of caribou…
He shook his head.
“Right. Okay.” She backed away, tripped on a chair—wow, could she be less cool right now?—flipped around, and stumbled over a garbage can. She hustled toward the exit. “The subway is this way.”
“Wait, no.” She looped away from the stairs. “Never mind. The coffee cart is this way. Haha. Ha…”
He paced her, silent and watchful.
Her heart pounded in her throat.
She was supposed to quit her job today.
She was supposed to leave the mer behind.
She was supposed to find a bride for Lotar who was smart and suave and articulate.
This storm of feeling swirling inside her set off warning sirens.
And one thing was clear.
Hazel wanted the party to succeed.
She absolutely, positively, definitely could not be Lotar’s soul mate.