“She’ll stay with me.”  Liam stares down the others with an intense glare, his green eyes flashing.

“Like hell she will!  The last time she spent the night alone with you, you punched her V card.”  Jude puffs up his chest and barrels over to Liam, emphasizing his extra height and weight.

My belly clenches, and I hold my breath.  Liam’s nose is still swollen from the last time they got in a fight over me.

Liam’s voice stays calm despite Jude’s posturing.  “Do you even have a place to stay, Jude?  Your roommates probably rented your room to someone else when you disappeared.”

Jude deflates some, but he doesn’t back off.  “I guess you don’t have to worry about that since your mommy and daddy pay for your swanky apartment.”

Avery winces.  “Are you sure they didn’t let it go, Liam?  We’ve been gone for months.  Most people probably think we’re dead.”

“I’m sure.  But even if they did, I can just take her to their house; there’s plenty of room.”  Liam’s tone is dismissive, and Jude and Avery both sneer at him.

“And how are you going to explain her to your parents?”  Jude puts his hands on his hips and smirks.

I glance at Gio to see his reaction.  Normally, he’d be taking the lead, settling the fight between them, but instead he’s just lying there with a pained look on his face.  With pale, clammy skin, dark shadows under his eyes, a tube running into his arm, and blankets pulled up to his armpits, he’s practically unrecognizable.  I can’t stand the thought of leaving him alone like this.

“I want to stay here tonight.  Gio needs me, and I want to be with him,” I blurt out, taking Gio’s limp hand in mine.  The corner of his lips lift in the slightest smile, and he squeezes my fingers.  The others swivel their heads to look at us, their fight forgotten, overridden by my concern for Gio.

“One family member can stay the night.”  A soft, round woman with skin darker than I’ve ever seen before and curly, black hair enters the room, tapping on something flat and glossy cradled in her arm.  Everything here is smooth and shiny like that, so different from the island and the sea.

My heart plummets in disappointment.  I’m not family, I’m not Gio’s mate, I’m not even human.  When the woman glances curiously at the four of us hovered around Gio and raises an eyebrow, I feel exposed, like she knows all this with one look.

“My girlfriend, Coral, is the closest thing I have to family.  I want her to stay with me.”  Gio’s voice sounds as weak as he looks, but it makes him seem desperate and needy.  Can she deny him?  I know I couldn’t.  We both turn to the woman with pleading looks on our faces.

She nods and gives a small smile, and my heart surges with blood again.  “That’s fine.  Just take it easy, okay?  No hanky-panky till the doctor says so.  He’ll be by to check on you tomorrow morning, and he’ll probably release you.”

“There, it’s settled.  You three go figure out where you’re staying tonight, and Coral will keep me company.  Come here, Princess.”  Gio pats the space next to him.

When the woman leaves the room, I climb up beside him.  He gingerly lifts the arm with the tube in it and wraps it around me.  His skin feels cold and dry against mine, and his masculine scent is buried under a sharp odor I don’t recognize, but I burrow into his chest, anyway, relieved that he’s alive and healing.  He wraps an arm around me and sighs.  The only good thing about Gio being sick is that he’s a lot more interested in cuddling.

“Fair enough.  I’ll get a vehicle and come back for you both in the morning,” Liam says, running a hand through his black hair, smoothing it.

Avery tosses his messy, blond locks out of his eyes with a flick of his head.  “Coral is going to need some clothes.  I want to take her shopping tomorrow.”

“I’ll take care of it.”  Liam waves him off, and Avery frowns at him.

“That’s my thing, Liam.  Just because you have money doesn’t put you in charge here.  We all have money now, remember?”

Gio’s face perks up.  “You managed to get the gold from those divers?  That’s a story I’m gonna want to hear.”

“It’s a doozy, that’s for sure,” Avery says, grinning and shaking his head at me.

“Oh yeah?  Will you tell me what happened, Coral?”  Gio looks curiously at me.

My cheeks get warm, and I dip my head.  “They can tell it.  I don’t know enough words yet.”

“Sure you do, Coral.  Your English is amazing.”  The compliment, especially coming from Liam, makes me blush again.  He’s so smart, it’s hard to imagine anyone impressing him.

“They wanted us to find more treasure for them; they had a gun.  But when I sang, they followed me.”

Gio tilts his head at me, confused, and Jude jumps in, his floppy, brown curls bobbing as he flings his arms around.

“She freakin’ mesmerized them is what she did!  It was incredible.  The young guy put a gun to her head, the rest of us jumped to attack them, and Coral started singing.  The next thing I knew, Coral had them hogtied in the cabin!”

Gio glances at Liam and Avery for confirmation.

“It’s true.  We were all under her spell, with no memory of what happened.  Apparently, Coral’s ability to transform her body isn’t her only talent.”  Liam’s voice is awed, and he looks at me with fascination.

“We better stay on her good side is all I got to say about that.”  Jude smirks at me.

Gio squeezes my shoulder and shakes his head.  “You really are something, aren’t you, Princess?  What happened after that?”

Liam answers for me, flashing a rare, mischievous grin.  “I commandeered their boat and sailed back to shore.  We took enough cash from them to cover our cab fair and left them tied up in the cabin.  I imagine someone will find them eventually.”

Gio smiles weakly and closes his eyes.  “Wish I coulda been there.”

“Hey, I think Gio needs some sleep.  We should get out of here.”  Avery nudges the others.

I tense as I realize they’re about to leave.  It will be the first night I’ve been away from them since the second day I met them.  I shudder as I remember the awful night I lay bruised and broken in the bottom of the chasm, how terrified I was that I would die without ever seeing them again.  But I survived, despite the curse that should’ve killed me or sent me back to the sea.  And the guys found me and rescued me, even when I thought all hope was lost.

“Are you going to be okay, Coral?”  Avery frowns and runs a soothing hand over my hair.

“Of course she will.  I’ll take care of her.”  Gio pulls me closer.

“I’ll miss you,” I whisper, looking up at the others.  I can feel wetness pooling in my eyes, blurring my vision.

“Aw, Princess, we’ll miss you, too.”  Avery reaches out to hug me.  I wrap my arms around him and bury my face in his neck.

When he lets go, Liam takes his place, capturing my lips with his.  My insides follow when he pulls away.

“You promise you’ll be back tomorrow?  You too, Jude?”  I look to him, and he grabs me and squeezes tight, lifting me off the bed a little.

“Of course, I will.  I’m not giving you up that easy.  These yahoos and I will figure out a way to share you.  Like joint custody, or something.”

I don’t know what that means, but his confidence reassures me.  They wave goodbye, giving me a few more kisses, and soon I’m alone with Gio.

The room feels cold and empty now, filled with strange objects and sounds I’ve never heard before — a whooshing sound that reminds me of the ocean but brings a chilly rush of air with it, beeping that mimics the dots of light flashing on the machine next to Gio, the squeak of shoes out in the hallway.  Everything but the bed is hard and unnatural.  Even the light feels cold, like moonlight, only brighter.  I miss the sand and the sunshine and the comfort of knowing what’s to come.  Here, every moment holds the threat of something unfamiliar.

When I shiver, Gio says, “Are you cold, Coral?  Why don’t you get under the blanket?”

He lifts the covers, and I slip in beside him, turning on my side so I can snuggle up to him.  His hand drapes around my shoulder and strokes my arm.  He winces when I rest a hand on his belly, so I jerk it away.

“Sorry!”  I sit up and pull back the covers so I can look at his abdomen.

Gio lifts the gown to show me three white rectangles stuck to his skin with something clear and shiny.  “These are bandages covering the wounds from the surgery — laparoscopic appendectomy.  It’s a little tender.”

I wince when Gio imagines metal instruments gouging into his belly.  He pulls his gown back down and covers up with the blanket again.  I put my hand on his arm so I won’t accidentally touch his stomach.

“What do merfolk do when they get sick, Coral?  Do you have doctors or healers of some kind?”

“We don’t get sick much, but if we do, there are foods we eat to feel better.  But sometimes merfolk die before they should.”

“Here, we have doctors and special tests and medicine and surgery, but sometime humans die young, too.”  Sadness furrows his face as his mind flashes back to memories of his parents’ bloody bodies lying dead in the managed wreckage of their vehicle.

My eyes widen, and I sit up and suck in a breath.  “Are you going to die, Gio?”

He makes a face, shaking his head.  “No, no!  I’ll be fine.  I’ll be better in no time,” he insists, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s just saying that to keep me from worrying.

His hand gently pushes my head back down onto his chest, his fingers grazing along my cheek.  We lay like that, lightly stroking each other and listening to the sounds of the hospital, until exhaustion finally claims me.

I wake up to an empty bed, and fear immediately jolts me upright.