Lyle, a merman, and Ben, his human, work together in a seaside ice-cream parlour and their life together is bliss. Or would be, if not for Ben's constant worries about career and money, and Lyle's dark past—a myriad of secrets, lies, wild magic, and foul deeds, which now threaten to catch up with him.
When Lyle's merfolk family accuse him of murder, Ben and Lyle's bond is stretched to the limit. Not only does Lyle seem unsuited to Ben's dreams of domestic happiness, his magical powers are spinning dangerously out of control. Even Lyle isn't entirely sure he's innocent.
With Ben dragged deep into the enchanted processes of merfolk justice, escaping with his life—and getting home to an important job interview—is just the start of the challenge. Uncovering Lyle's inner truths without destroying their love could be a step too far...
Lyle concentrated hard, frowning, as he piled a second scoop of salted caramel ice-cream onto the cone. He arranged it at a picturesque angle, slightly misaligned from the original globule, yet not so far off-kilter it would slide off the moment it began melting.
He blinked at the cone, admired his handiwork, and nodded. He’d arranged it almost perfectly, though there was always room for improv…
“Will you hurry up, young man? I’d like my ice-cream this side of Christmas, thank you very much.”
The customer’s complaint cut through Lyle’s reverie. “I apologize,” said Lyle, handing the ice-cream across the glass counter to the puffy-cheeked little human. “However, you’ve barely been detained thirty seconds, which is nothing compared to the queues we had in the summer holidays. If you’re starving hungry, I suggest you go find something more nutritious to fill your belly. My boyfriend swears by a full bowl of Weetabix first thing each day.”
Then Ben would drown the cereal in milk until it resembled soggy sand. Ugh!
Still, the recollection of those sleepy morning routines at the flat, now a daily occurrence, helped Lyle muster his best “customer service” smile. Thinking about Ben always cheered Lyle up, even in the most trying of circumstances—and he’d been in a lot worse messes than the present.
Lyle wasn’t so naïve to the ways of the human world not to know why the customer—whose face had turned the colour of the beetroot-and-bubble-gum sorbet—glared up at him. Indeed, Lyle had been ever-so-slightly rude, but he couldn’t help winding these folk up sometimes. Just because he served iced and sugary snacks didn’t mean people should treat him like the scum of the seabed.
Besides, he could be so polite when he chose. “That’ll be one pound and fifty English pence please, sir,” he said smoothly.
“You’ll be lucky, mate,” said the customer, backing toward the exit. “I’ll be emailing your ruddy manager about your cheek.”
The old-fashioned shop bell chimed out as the door of Alberto Bertrand’s Traditional Ice-Cream Parlour swung open then shut. Lyle gaped as the man scooted passed the windows with the unpaid for ice-cream in hand. If he chased the thieving bastard down the street and demanded payment, it would doubtless get him into deeper trouble and guarantee fresh headaches for Ben.
Good job Lyle had a better plan.
He closed his eyes, drew a swift, fortifying breath, and connected with the fizzing ball of magic at his innermost core. From this secret place, deep inside, he reached out to the ocean, which heaved and swelled just fifty yards away, at the end of the road. Energy sparked in his chest like electricity. He wiggled his fingers and urged a seismic shift into a tub of white-choc-chip galore.
Lyle dashed out from behind the counter, plastered himself to the windowpane, and let silent laughter quake through him. Just a few strides up the street, the little customer hopped from leg to leg, mouthing a variety of curses, as he groped down the back of his anorak. The magical arrival of an icy blob of white-choc-chip on the nape of his neck had given him a hell of a shock, for he’d dropped his cone on the pavement. A tragic waste, although the circling seagulls would clear that up soon enough—possibly before the melting ice-cream had finished its torturous trickle down the stricken man’s spine.
“Lyle, are you okay? Why are you standing at the window shaking?”
Lyle turned around, swallowing back his mirth, to see Ben, his boyfriend, lover, and hero, his everything, had emerged from the back office. Benjamin—who Lyle had begun calling Ben because one syllable was enough when they’d a line of punters trailing outside the parlour door—was gorgeous. Even now Lyle got to spend most of every day with him, his handsome features and soulful brown eyes still snatched Lyle’s breath. Though too often, as at present, Ben’s demeanour bent toward seriousness and worry.
“I’m perfectly fine.” Lyle turned to offer his most beguiling grin in an effort to allay Ben’s concerns, which weren’t entirely unfounded. The aftereffects of the magic proved more draining than Lyle had hoped. No longer rocked by mirth, he found himself trembling uncontrollably. “I’m afraid I might have had another little problem with a customer, but… oh… oh bugger!”
Lyle’s knees buckled and he slid down the window, landing heavily on his arse. Simultaneously, he lost control of the simple shapeshifting spell he’d been using on himself since he’d last bathed in the sea and drank deeply of its power, at seven o’clock that morning. The purple shirt fabric on both his outer arms ripped beneath the shoulders and his trousers tore open at his thighs. His four long tentacle-like fins reappeared, slapping wildly against the glass pane.
“Not again,” sighed Ben, who’d rushed to Lyle’s side. Ben looped his arms about Lyle, who rested his throbbing forehead on Ben’s shoulder. “Please stop using so much magic, Lyle. Even this close to the sea, we know you can’t cast a spell and keep yourself looking entirely human, and that’s the third shirt you’ve ruined this fortnight. Not to mention that tragedy with your trousers when you went totally fish-boy on me. Come on, you.”
Still with an arm around him, Ben hauled Lyle to his feet, pausing to turn the “open” sign on the door over to “back in five minutes.” He bundled Lyle into the poky back office and eased him down into a tattered velour armchair.
“What did you do?” Ben raked his fingers back through his lush chestnut hair as he loomed over the seated Lyle.
Having regained his strength, aided by Ben’s lovely arms around him, Lyle bit back a snigger. He wanted to share what’d just happened with Ben, he really did. But he’d a notion the truth would only shift Ben’s mood from mild worry toward major stress, and that would spoil the rest of their day.
“I realized I’d given too much change so I magicked it back out of the customer’s pocket.” He peeped up at Ben from beneath the blur of his flickering lashes. “I know how you hate it when your till doesn’t add up at the end of the day.”