I’ve begun to see this cover on the internet, and as I was handing out Net Galley e-arcs at Comic Con with the art proudly displayed (plus, there was a huge poster), I think it’s safe to assume that I can show you all the cover to the next Dirk & Steele novel, IN THE DARK OF DREAMS. It’s set for release this fall.
Here’s an excerpt:
She found the boy at dawn, during her morning escape from the big house on the hill.
Not running, not walking either—occasionally skipping down the narrow path to the rocky shore, dragging a beach towel behind her, and a tote bag for her drawing pad and pencils. Dawn light was the best, but it was always cool and windy, and she was bundled in so many layers of wool and cotton, she felt fat.
It was a relief to leave the house. Her grandparents were kind, but their business occupied them all the time, and the girl did not always care for their guests, or the fights those strangers brought with them. She also disliked the way some of them looked at her—with puzzlement—and sometimes, disdain.
Twelve, she had overheard one of the visitors say, the night before. Twelve years old and ordinary.
Better ordinary than rude and mean, thought the girl, listening to the gentle throbbing roar of the waves rushing the shore. She had better things to do with her time than listen to stupid men who wore stupid suits and smelled like ladies perfume. That, and her grandfather had told her more than once that she was perfect the way she was. The girl knew that was a lie, but it was enough that he loved her.
The path curved. Gulls cried. The sun was just beginning to peer over the ocean horizon, a glint of gold carved in an endless wash of peach light. The girl inhaled deeply, throwing out her arms. Pretending she could fly toward the dawn and burn in that light.
A fantasy interrupted by a low moan.
She flinched, heart thudding, and spun around to search the beach for another person. Ready to run, if she had to. But she saw nothing. Just rock and driftwood, and the water rushing in, dark with glints of silver that lengthened and then were lost in shadow, again and again, shimmering as the sea sometimes did, as though the foam was made of diamonds.
Nothing. The girl saw nothing, until she heard that moan again, soft and anguished. She took a step, staring. Sensing movement behind one of the pale, twisted logs that had drifted onto shore.
She almost fled. Her grandparents were always telling her to be careful, that bad people might try to take her, that she should trust no one but them, ever, because their business made enemies and even though they had taken precautions, even though no one but a handful, mostly family, knew their faces…
The girl took another step, and then another. Slow, halting, her lungs aching from holding her breath. She was going to run, she told herself. Fly in the opposite direction, and go get help.
But that voice sounded so pained. What if someone was really hurt? What if there was no time to get help?
She had to see. Had to be certain.
It seemed to take forever to cross the distance. Just thirty feet, but it felt like a mile. The girl finally got close, though. She was short, and the driftwood was large. All she could see on the other side was a shimmer of light covered in tangled seaweed. And then that light shifted, and became…scales.
Her breath caught, again. But scales were less frightening than human legs. Emboldened, she walked quickly around the end of the log.
And saw the boy.
She did not expect him. Something else, maybe, but not him. Not a boy her age, with a gaunt white face covered in dried salt, or large eyes the pale blue of a sea glacier. His lips were cracked, and his hair was long, tangled, a white-blonde halo glinting silver around his face. The sun was rising behind him. She felt blind for a moment, her knees weak.
He had no legs. Just a tail. A fish tail.
The girl staggered backward, and fell into the sand. She sat there, frozen, so terrified she could not breathe. She tried to cry out for help, for anyone who might be near, but her voice caught in her throat and all she could do was wheeze. Tears pricked her eyes—and for a moment, just one, she imagined the same terror in the boy’s face. He tried to push away from her, and she saw a bright splash of blood on his pale skinny chest.
The blood woke her up. Snapped something free inside her chest. She could suddenly breathe, opening her mouth to scream—
— and stopped. Just stopped, staring into those pale blue eyes, which were glinting with tears, and fear. And the girl thought of her grandparents whom she trusted, and those visitors whom she did not, and the choice flowed through her before she was hardly conscious of it.
She bunched her fingers into the cool damp sand, and closed her mouth. Forced herself to breathe, and then slowly, carefully, angled forward. She had seen strange things before, she reminded herself. Not as odd as this, but she could cope. She would cope.
The boy tried to slide away toward the water. His tail hampered him. It was like watching a seal flop, but only more disturbing. He was human above the waist, though his white flesh merged at his hips with silver scales—the rest of him long and muscular, glimmering in the early sun. The girl felt like she was losing her mind, but the cool air nipped her hot cheeks, and her heart beat so hard she knew that she was alive, conscious.
This was real.
The boy had a cut on his chest, still bleeding. He seemed weak, and kept wincing as he tried to get away. His low muffled cry was dull, keening. The girl flung out her hand, but did not chase him.
“Don’t be afraid,” she whispered.
Her voice made him stop, and he peered at her over his shoulder. He was breathing hard, his eyes narrowed with pain. The girl slowly, carefully, crawled toward him. She was afraid to stand, that it would scare him. He tensed when she got close. She froze, and then moved again. Humming a song her grandmother liked to sing to her at bedtime. The boy’s gaze flicked down to her mouth, then returned to her eyes.
A moment later, he began to hum the same melody.
His voice was unearthly. Chills swept over the girl, but she found herself smiling, and the corner of his mouth ticked upward, ever so faintly. She settled down in the sand, watching him—not shy to let her gaze travel down the length of his body. He did the same to her, staring at her toes. She pushed her feet toward him, just a little, and wiggled each one into the sand. The boy stopped humming.
“You’re hurt,” she said softly, and pointed to his chest.
The boy touched the cut, very gingerly. It was a clean wound, as though a knife had been used. Blood still seeped from the wound. Red blood, like hers would be.
He gave her a mournful look, and the girl remembered the beach towel. She had dropped it only a few feet away. She found a corner still untouched by the sand. Watching him carefully, she mimed rubbing her chest with it. The boy hesitated, and then nodded.
The girl crept close. So close she could feel the warmth of his skin, and feel the heat of his breath against her face. She dabbed at the wound, and then flinched as the boy suddenly covered her hand with his and pressed the towel hard against the cut. For a moment her mind went blank—all she could think about was that he was touching her—and then she remembered the basic first aid she had learned in school and realized that he was trying to stop the bleeding—not clean the wound, as had been her first instinct.
She felt like a fool.
And it was hard to breathe again. She tried to tug free her hand, but his grip tightened. He looked down, and so did she. His skin was white—not like snow, but white as the perfect marble statues that sat on wooden pedestals in her grandfather’s library. A white stone that seemed to glow in sunlight. Much like the boy seemed to glow, perfect and unblemished.
The girl had always been fair and freckled compared to her tanned rambunctious cousins, but against the boy she was a dark peach pink, rich with color. He reached out with his other hand and touched a loose strand of her red hair, which had come loose from her braids and was blowing in the wind toward his face. He held it—and suddenly brave, she reached out to touch his hair. He tensed, and then relaxed—flashing her another tentative smile.
She loved that smile. She loved it with a fierceness that startled her. Never mind the impossibility of the moment—and him. His smile, shy and warm, was perfectly human—and better than human. The towel slipped down between them. The girl hardly noticed. She could not look away from his face. Memorizing every line. This was magic, she thought. This was what it meant to like a boy. To really like a boy and have her heart in her throat, and her head faint, and her skin rebelling with goose pimples. She understood now.
The boy made several clicking sounds, wincing as he reaching down to pick up the towel and press it against his wound. The bleeding had slowed, but it still looked painful. The girl thought about the First Aid kit that was in the kitchen, but she was afraid to leave the boy. He might not be here when she got back. Or someone else could find him. She couldn’t let that happen.
“You need help,” she said despondently. “I don’t know what to do.”
He frowned, staring into her eyes, and uttered those clicking sounds again. Words, she realized. But nothing she could possibly understand.
“Help,” she said, and pointed to his chest. “Ouch.”
“Ouch,” mouthed the boy, grazing his fingers across her brow, then trailing down; her thick red braid sliding against his palm. Her scalp tingled. Everything tingled. The tip of his tail twitched against the sand. She touched his hip, lightly. His scales were surprisingly soft. The boy shied away, and made a strange gasping sound. She felt instantly terrible for touching him, until she saw his smile and warm eyes—a darker blue now, like the sky.
Laughter. That was laughter she had heard.
“Ticklish,” she said, awed and delighted. “You’re…ticklish.”
He gave her a puzzled look, still smiling.
Until, quite suddenly, he froze. His smile lost its warmth. Color drained out of his eyes. He turned stiffly, staring at the sea. The girl tried to follow his gaze, but the sun had risen and it was bright. She shaded her eyes.
A man emerged from the water. Rose from the waves like some story of Poseidon that she had read in school. His hair was long and silver, braided partially into thin tangled rows. At first, she could only see him from the waist up, but as he came closer, she saw that he had legs. He was also very naked.
The boy drew in a sharp breath, and shoved the girl back, away from the sea and himself. She stared at him, and the fear in his eyes hit her like a fist. Sharp clicking sounds tumbled from his throat. When she did not run, he grabbed a fistful of sand and flung it at her. Tears filled his eyes. Desperation.
The girl stared helplessly, and looked at the man, who was now striding free of the water. His gaze was thunderous when he stared at her, but she could not tell if it was anger or actual hate that made his jaw so tight, and his eyes so black.
The boy screamed at her, and the piercing wail of his voice shook her to the core. She stumbled back a step, and her heel hit a driftwood branch, long and crooked, small enough for her hands. She picked it up without thinking and ran at the man. She swung the branch like a baseball bat and smashed him on the arm.
It was like hitting a brick wall. The impact jarred her to the bone, and hurt her hands. The branch broke against him.
For a moment, both the boy and the man stared at her in astonishment. And then, much to her horror, the man laughed. Not like the boy—not in broken gasps—but full-bodied human, male laughter. A cold sound. Nothing gentle or warm about it.
He picked up a piece of the branch and hefted it carefully, staring into her eyes. The girl knew he would hit her with it, but her feet refused to move. Rooted in one spot, frozen. The boy howled again, and lunged across the sand. He sank his teeth into the man’s calf.
The man jerked wildly, breaking eye contact. The girl staggered, able to move again—and this time she did not hesitate or fight. She turned and ran.
She flew across the sand, certain at any moment a rock would slam into her head—or that strong arms would crush her to death. She ran mindlessly, terrified, and did not stop until she reached the top of the dirt path, well off the beach. She turned, breathless, and saw the man hauling the boy into the sea. He held him by the tail, and the boy was dragging his fingers in the sand, struggling wildly, trying to catch himself and hold on to something, anything.
All the while, he stared up the hill at the girl.
She stared back, horrified and grieving. Too far away to help. Not strong enough to fight the man hauling him into the water. She wanted to call out to the boy, but her throat choked on the words, and all she could do was dig her clenched fists into her stomach and hold his gaze until he and the man disappeared into the sea.
The girl stood for a long time, watching. Not once did they reappear.
Finally, feeling faint, she made her way back down the trail to the sand and the driftwood log. She was scared to be there. The beach suddenly felt very big, and she was hot, sweating. Her knees were weak all over again, but she couldn’t bring herself to sit. She saw large footprints in the sand. Human. As human as the imprint of the boy’s tail was not.
Something small glinted where he had lain beside her. She bent, and found a single scale. Larger than her thumbnail, and the color of white pearl, with iridescent hints of silver. The girl held the scale very carefully, and then, with reverence, slipped it into her pocket.
She gathered her things, and walked slowly to the house on the hill. She hid the bloodstained towel, and threw it out the first chance she got. Not once did she breathe a word of what she had seen, though her grandfather gave her a piercing look over dinner when he asked how her day had been.
The girl returned to that spot every morning, all that summer. She did the same, the following year—and every year after that. Until, one day, she told herself that the boy was never coming back. Not there.
But she kept looking.