It's cold in New Jersey and just the time of year to read OUTSIDE BLESSINGS! Enjoy this excerpt while you're tucked under a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa nearby.
Blessings, New Jersey
Selkies snubbed her. Though humans did not know her origins, they often stared at her and whispered behind her back. She never fit in anywhere.
Her sister, Lila, did not care what others thought of her. She had made the decision to embrace everything human. Now she was dead. The authorities in the town of Blessings claimed she committed suicide. The officials glared at Neema with eyes as cold as the frost on the windowpanes while offering their meaningless condolences. They reminded her that such unfortunate events happened regularly at the seaside.
Neema told them Lila was murdered. Though she had been jilted at the altar, she had promised to travel with Neema to visit her aunts and give herself time to sort things out. Lila always kept her promises.
The town’s officials refused to listen to Neema. According to the town’s doctor, the official cause of Lila’s death was drowning. He decided she had been suffering from melancholia since she was supposed to be married on Christmas Eve, but the groom never showed up for the ceremony.
Neema vowed to find Lila’s murderer herself.
The moment the edge of morning appeared as a gray line on the horizon, she dressed as fast as possible. While she dreaded going out into the bitter winter weather, she intended to clear her sister’s name no matter what it took. In what seemed like the ultimate injustice, her sister had been buried outside the graveyard—in fact, outside of Blessings—because suicide was considered murder. In the opinion of most of the people in the town, her sister went straight to hell.
Neema’s eyes grew misty, but she had no time to wallow in grief. When she yawned, her breath made a cloud in her cold, third floor room. Still, she considered herself fortunate to have
shelter—even a third-floor icebox in the Courts’ resplendent, fifteen room cottage on a dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Her sister’s rented garret had already been leased to new owners.
Neema tread the stairs as lightly as possible, praying no one would hear her as she hurried outside. This was the only time she had to herself during the course of the day and she used it to search the crevices in the rocks along the jetty. Despite the freezing temperature, she left the cottage and braved the wind-swept dunes.
As she struggled against the strong gusts, she recalled her sister’s tear-ravaged face while they waited at the altar for hours for the groom to arrive.
“You are beautiful and talented and he is a fool.” Neema reassured her. Still, Gustave’s sudden reluctance to marry seemed unbelievable given the circumstances.
As the eldest son of a railroad magnate, he had inherited a fortune as well as his family’s summer home in Blessings. Injured in a private boating accident, he stayed in the New Jersey seaside town to recuperate long after the summer season ended. He did not know Lila was the one who had saved him from drowning. She had fallen in love with him from that moment and he was besotted with her as well.
Gustave made Lila laugh with his foolishness. He painted their initials in red hearts all along the boardwalk—for which he was fined a large amount of money, but he merely shrugged and hired laborers to remove the paint.
He was not under any suspicion, but the officials were supposedly looking for him. Rumors circulated about town claiming he was now engaged to a wealthy man’s daughter. Some said he had traveled to England and married a princess. Some said he was in a home for the insane.
Neema faced the howling wind as waves lashed against the rock jetty, sending icy spray high into the air. Because the surfmen from the lifesaving station had found her sister’s ice-covered body wedged between the huge granite boulders, she had decided to search for clues there.
Over the past two weeks, she had painstakingly hunted in all the crevices in the massive stones, bit by bit, day by day. She refused to give up. If she did not find anything in the jetty to bolster her case, she would sift through every grain of sand around it.
Taking great care, she walked along the slippery, ice-covered rocks. The tide had gone out so there was less chance she would be drenched with a cascade of salt water. If she returned soaked to the skin, Mrs. Kelleher, the housekeeper at the Courts’ cottage, would have a conniption. Worse, Mr. Court might fire her—despite her skill with a needle.
As soon as she came to the point where she had stopped the day before, she knelt down. She had placed a sturdy piece of driftwood into a crevice to mark the spot. She pulled out the wood and slid her thinly gloved hand into the space. Searching all around the huge gray stone, she found nothing of importance other than bits of shells, splinters of wood, and seaweed. She crept to the next stone and repeated the process.
From out in the water, she heard a sharp bark.
“Go away, Seamus!” she called back. Seamus annoyed her. He had wanted to mate with her the past two seasons, but she refused him—as had all the Selkie females. He was obnoxious to every one of them. Since he failed to attract a mate, he had been banished to the bachelors’ island. She avoided him much as she would a shark.
He barked again in a more strident manner. This time he sounded much closer.
She pulled her hand out of the crevice and glared at him. His nearness unsettled her. He sat on a low, flat rock not ten feet from her, bobbing his head up and down. She turned away, refusing to communicate with him. His unwelcome distraction hampered her progress.
She glanced toward the east where the sun rose above the horizon. Soon the whole household would be up and she would be missed. Clamping her teeth together, she plunged her hand into another frigid crevice. She had only a quarter of an hour at best and she must not waste it even though her fingers were numb with the cold and she shivered uncontrollably.
Seamus continued barking, but she kept at her task. As she finished sliding her fingers around one boulder, she went on to the next. This would have to be the last one for today, and she would be forced to run all the way back to the cottage to make it in time.
The bell in the church tower tolled the hour. She wanted to cry, for she must leave and she had gained nothing toward finding an answer for Lila’s death. Gathering up her courage, she set her chin defiantly. She would not be defeated. She stood, turned, and cautiously stepped along the boulders to make her way back to the beach.
In the golden beams of the morning, she caught the glint of something inside a crevice only three feet from Seamus. Had he seen it, too? Is that why he had been so insistent? Or was it a trick?
She grabbed her sturdy piece of driftwood, intending to shove him away if he came close to her. Keeping one eye on Seamus, she bent down. He barked, growled, and lowered his head.
“If you bite me, I will clobber you with this stick,” she threatened. Then in one swift
movement, she scooped up the bright bauble.
Her heart thundered as she opened her hand and stared at it. It was Lila’s silver heart
locket—the one Gustave had given to her on her birthday. Lila’s initials were engraved on the surface, so there could be no doubt.
She trembled as emotion swamped her like a giant wave. With knees too weak to hold her, she sank upon the hard, cold granite. Her chest tightened as she realized she sat in perhaps the very spot where her sister had met her doom.
She tried to open the tiny clasp with her frozen fingers, but she could not. A small sob escaped her lips.
Seamus inched closer, but she was too distraught to care.
“What are you doing there? Can’t you see the sign? Don’t climb on the rocks.” A deep voice shouted at her. “Seals bite! Move away so I can get rid of that creature!”
Neema’s heart quailed when she saw the man holding a pistol not twenty feet from her. Beside him stood a giant, hairy dog, the lifesaving station’s St. Bernard.
Panic gripped her. “Don’t shoot!”
“Move away from the seal.” The man aimed the gun at Seamus. “Those beasts can crush shells with their teeth.”
“Put that gun away!” she shouted.
Seamus wriggled away and slid into the water.
The man and the dog clambered up onto the rock wall.
“Are you crazy?” he shouted at her.
“What if you missed him and shot me?” Neema fired back.
“You should have listened to me.” The insignia on his uniform marked him as one of the
surfmen of the lifesaving station.
“That seal didn’t hurt me.” She gave him her fiercest glare and managed to get to her feet
though her knees still quaked. The surfman’s rugged face would have been pleasing but for the livid scar across his cheek which went all the way to his chin. She stared at it and wondered if it went further down along his neck, but she could not tell for a thick scarf lay wrapped around his throat.
“Seals attack without warning.”
“Only when they feel threatened,” she retorted. Her hands clenched into tight fists.
“What if he dragged you into the water? You weigh less than half as much as that creature.
You’d make a good breakfast.” The young man stood a head taller than her. She looked up into eyes the same color as the aqua sea—unusual and fascinating. A tingle crept up her spine.
He’s human, she reminded herself. Humans were unreliable at best and often dangerous. They had no regard for animals of any kind. She ground her teeth together. Yes, she was half human but she couldn’t help that. Look what happened to Lila. She trusted humans too much.
“Seals are interested in fish, clams, octopus, and other ocean fare,” she stated. She was well aware Seamus had another agenda in mind, which had nothing to do with food. She hoped he returned to the seal’s bachelor island and stayed there.
She slid the small, silver heart into the deepest recesses of her pocket.
“Those creatures appear harmless with their big eyes, but they are sly, wicked, and never to be trusted.” The deep rumble of his voice seemed to vibrate right through her.
“I know that seal.” That much was true, though Seamus wasn’t a friend. In fact, she had no friends in the pod. Although, she did have her two caring aunts.
“Seals are wild animals.” The young man growled as fiercely as Seamus and she bristled with indignation. “For your own safely, stay away from them and do not climb on these rocks. The sign is there for a reason. If you ignore the warning, you will be fined.”
“It says nothing about a fine on the sign.”
“Article 587 clearly states...”
She rolled her eyes. He was the most annoying kind of human, all wrapped up in rules and
regulations. Arguing with him would be pointless. Whirling about she intended to leave but the huge dog blocked her path. The animal sat on his haunches and studied her. She feared most dogs, especially large ones who easily detected her anxiety, but this one had often visited Lila, who always gave him a treat of some sort. He displayed a measure of patience she rarely saw in canines. With his sad, dark eyes, she sensed his condolences for her sister’s death. However, she couldn’t be sure for she had never learned to communicate with dogs. Most of them wanted to bite her.
“Come,” the man ordered.
The dog heaved a sigh and, despite his massive size, he deftly moved around Neema to stand at the man’s side.
Relieved, she picked her way carefully over the ice-encrusted boulders until the church bell rang again and her heart quailed. She was very late now and could expect a reprimand the moment she stepped in the door. If Mr. or Mrs. Court saw her, she might be dismissed on the spot.
She hoisted her skirts and ran. Jumping down to a wide, flat slab of granite, her foot slid. She screamed as she fell, but then...all went black and she knew nothing.
Read more of OUTSIDE BLESSINGS at http://a.co/cb7mziM (Use the Look Inside feature!)