Bonus story for Shifting Sands Resort: Lift
This story happens after Tropical Christmas Stag and has one minor spoiler for that book (blink and you’ll miss it!). New to Shifting Sands Resort? The first box set has three books to start your addiction and set you on a ten-book adventure full of laughter and love, with a thrilling conclusion and a lot of heart. (And of course, you can always read it free in Kindle Unlimited!)
by Zoe Chant
Shifting Sands Resort was made of stairs, it seemed.
Only the beach was flat, and once Mia had made her way laboriously down to it—one painful step at a time, leaning on her hateful cane, waiting for the bad knee to buckle—she honestly wasn’t sure how she was going to get back up to her room in the hotel, or if she even wanted to.
The registration form had warned her that the resort did not have accommodations for disabilities, a fact that had been reiterated apologetically by the resort owner who met her at the entrance and gave her the keys to her room.
Why should they? It was a private resort for shifters only, and shifters were faster and stronger than humans and healed more quickly. There were only a vanishing number of shifters with mobility issues, and of those, not many could afford the steep prices of a luxury resort. It was ridiculous to think that such a place would make expensive upgrades like handicap lifts for such a tiny fraction of their target audience.
The owner, Scarlet, had not treated her with pity, but Mia still knew it was there behind her frosty-polite exterior.
“The staff is available to help you if you need anything,” Scarlet assured her. “Don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I don’t need any special concessions,” Mia told her flatly. She hated asking for help.
But looking back up all the steps she’d come down, she wasn’t sure she’d been truthful. She hadn’t expected the island to be quite so steep. Her long trip, dragging luggage through sprawling airports and sleeping on red eyes in uncomfortable seats had been hard enough.
Mia thought that she was used to navigating inhospitable terrain. Before her injury, she’d loved hiking in the mountains. “Are you sure your shift form isn’t goat?” her best friend Lena would ask her, panting up behind her to a view worth the climb. “Some of us can’t fly, you know.”
But since her life-altering fall, Mia had found that even businesses that made an attempt at accessibility often fell short, and what had once been an easy commute was suddenly a course of obstacles.
Like all those stairs.
Maybe she would just spend the rest of her visit on the beach, Mia decided, settling to a seat on the warm sand and laying her cane beside her. There was a bar that presumably had snacks and shifter-strength drinks and it wasn’t so cold that she actually needed the shelter of her hotel room. She could just doze in the sun all day and entertain herself watching the tiny crabs that were scuttling around digging tiny holes with all the focus of their tiny little lives and sleep under the warm stars.
It was less humiliating than asking for one of those big, ridiculously gorgeous guys wandering around in staff shirts to carry her back up to her rented room like a sack of flour.
Mia had to admit that it was a beautiful place and it felt peaceful. There was far-away laughter from the pool-side bar, and even more distant singing—something operatic in a booming bass voice that she could barely hear over the thrumming waves. There was even a dragon at the far end of the beach, craning a gleaming head to watch figures in the water.
She closed her eyes and could feel the sunlight beating down on her eyelids.
It almost felt like magic and she had to swallow around the lump in her throat.
She didn’t really believe this was an enchanted island that could cure her injury. Sure, there were rumors that it had brought back the hearing of a famous deaf musician, but she was too practical to listen to ridiculous stories. That wasn’t why she had booked her stay here; she was only here for a mundane vacation.
Well, as mundane as you could get at a resort just for shifters.
Just as she was deciding that she had the energy to stand up and make it as far as the beach-side bar for something to drink, there was a sudden commotion in the water at the far end of the curve of the bay and Mia watched in astonishment as an entire pod of dolphins came barreling out of the surf to shift right in mid-leap to human form.
She was struck at once with envy and awe at their sheer athleticism. Even at a resort for shifters, they were remarkable, tumbling and cartwheeling as they laughed and hooted and pelted across the sand. An Olympic gymnastic team would have been impressed at their effortless flips and handsprings. They knelt in pairs and tossed each other up into twists and acrobatic spins, shouting as they went, as unconstrained by gravity in the air as they must be in the water.
And then Mia realized that they were coming right up the beach towards her because she was sitting at bottom of the detested steps to the rest of the resort. She had a sudden impulse to bury her cane in the sand and her stomach gave an unhappy little flip as she saw that they had caught sight of her and were slowing, even as her bird gave an unexpected flutter in her chest.
There were four men and three women, all of them so similar in their golden coloring and lithe build that they must be related, though they ranged in age considerably. They were clearly comfortable in their own skin and enjoying the optional part of the clothing-optional beach.
The nearest of them, a man of Mia’s own middle age, suddenly bolted forward, outsprinting the others, who laughed and called after him, “Jack! What’s in your shoes?”
“Why the rush?”
“Where’s the fire?”
“Catapult!” This last was from one of the women, who launched herself at one of the others and was vaulted into the air after him.
She landed in a forward roll across the sand just at his heels as the man who must be Jack came to a stop at Mia’s feet, and she realized that she was the center of all of their attention and not one of them mattered except him. He was glittering with saltwater, his hair too dark with wet to guess a color, and his eyes were piercing blue and crinkled with laughter. He had golden-tanned skin and a straight nose. His mouth was slightly parted in a wide grin.
Yes, her bird sighed in contentment. Yes, this is right.
He was their mate.
* * *
Jack wasn’t sure why his dolphin would drag him up the beach at some poor sunbather who appeared to be fresh off a plane, but he went along with the compulsion as cheerfully as he did everything. There was no point in dragging his feet if they had somewhere to be!
The urge didn’t abate the way it sometimes did when his dolphin found something else to be fascinated with, and about halfway to where the woman was sitting, the draw became a singing certainty.
She was his true mate! She had to be! This was the moment he’d been longing for since he first heard hushed stories about soulmates and destiny.
And naturally, he wasn’t alone. He was never alone.
As much as he cared about his boisterous cousins and siblings, at that moment, he would have cheerfully buried every one of them in the sand. He was going to meet his mate, and he was going to do it with an opinionated audience, and he was never, ever going to live down all the stupid things he was about to say to her.
He came to a halt at her feet, staring down at her, wondering why she didn’t rise to meet him, until he saw the cane in the sand beside her.
She was gazing up at him, huge dark eyes in a pale, round face, her lips just parted as she must be coming to the same realization that Jack just had.
“Hello! I’m Jordan,” his oldest cousin introduced cheerfully. “This is Jack, Julie, John, Jonas, Josh, and Jenny…” Jenny was balanced flat on her back between the shoulders of John and Jonas.
“M-Mia…” the woman said, still looking only at Jack.
“Jack looks like he’s just come up for air under a boat and knocked himself stupid,” Jonas snorted.
“He always looks like that,” Jenny teased.
“Why are we introducing ourselves to a stranger on the beach?” Julie asked skeptically.
Jordan chortled, “Isn’t it obvious? Jack’s found his mate!”
Julie hissed in shock, and Jonas and Josh cheered and clapped Jack on the bare shoulders.
“You guys know I can do this by myself, right?” Jack asked, keenly aware that they were probably not helping him make the greatest first impression, looming around his poor mate like they were trying to make a naked replica of Stonehenge. “Can we get a little space?”
“C’mon,” John said sternly. “Let’s give them some privacy.”
“Thank you,” Jack said gratefully as his brother dragged their protesting cousins away. Jenny rolled off of her brother’s shoulder to land lightly on her feet.
They each gave Jack a firm punch in the arm as they left, cheering and speculating loudly about wedding plans and the number of children they’d have.
“I’m so sorry about them,” Jack said, dashing to reach up onto the pool deck for a towel hanging on the railing and wrap it around his waist in chagrin. “Can I…can I sit with you? I’m Jack, and those jerks are my closest family. They mean well, but they have a weird idea of personal space. I’m a dolphin, we tend to stick to our pods, and I’m sorry, I’m talking too much, you’re Mia?”
Mia. His mate, Mia. His dolphin was whistling in joy.
“Yes, I’m Mia,” she said, making a vague gesture to the sand beside her that wasn’t entirely an invitation but definitely wasn’t a protest. “I’m a loon.”
Jack started to laugh as he fell to a seat beside her, expecting a joke, then quickly said, “Oh, you meant that literally? A loon? That’s amazing, they’re so beautiful. You’re beautiful and it must be amazing to be able to fly.”
He knew in a split second that he’d said something terrible because her face fell into misery and despair. Fix this! his dolphin wailed. What have you done?
“What’s wrong?” he begged, leaning to take her hands, wanting desperately to pull her in close, to do anything to make her smile at him again, only at the last moment remembering to ask, “May I? Can I help? Let me hold you?”
Tears welled up in her beautiful eyes. “I can’t fly anymore,” she said in agony. “I’ll never fly again.”
* * *
It would never work, Mia thought in regret. He was the happiest thing that she had ever laid eyes on, his joy like a light in his pale eyes and in every line of his fit body. But she was dark and broken and she might drag him into the pit of regret that she lived in and she could never forgive herself for doing that to him.
“You should go,” she said, over her loon’s protests. “I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re great, but I’m not really a fit m-m-mate.”
Jack looked at her with nothing but adoration on his face. “Why don’t you let me decide that,” he said gently. “Will you tell me about it?”
“Tell you what?” Mia asked, feeling dense and confused. Why was he still here, distracting her with his gleaming bare chest and strong shoulders?
“Everything!” he said with a kind smile. “I want to know every single thing! Start at your earliest memory if you want, or what you had for dinner, if you’ve had dinner, or where you’re from, maybe? If you can bear to tell me, why can’t you fly?”
Mia wanted to fall into his arms and tell him every sordid story but only gestured to her leg. The knee, now that she’d been off it for a while, had gone from stabbing pain to deep, hot throbbing. She knew from experience that would be worse than ever if she put weight on it now. “It healed wrong after I fell,” she said shortly.
His face fell into a puzzled expression because that wasn’t much of an explanation.
Mia plowed on. “The knee was in pieces, and…I wasn’t somewhere I could shift, but it still tried to heal and by the time I finally got to a hospital, the bones had already started to knit into the wrong places. The doctors were already really suspicious and confused. Fixing it would have meant specialized surgery, breaking it and rebuilding it almost from scratch. I couldn’t just…tell them what I was, so surgery wasn’t exactly an option. It’s just what it is, now.”
She tried to sound aloof, like it wasn’t a big deal, like the sympathy in Jack’s eyes didn’t break her heart. “I get along fine most of the time,” she said firmly. “It’s just been a long day and a lot of stairs.”
“That’s your leg, though,” Jack said slowly. “I’ve seen one-legged birds in our feeders back home that can fly with their flocks.”
“I’m a water bird,” Mia pointed out. “Have you ever seen a loon take off? They’ve got a hundred goofy videos online with comical music. We have to run on the water for dozens of feet before we can get enough lift to take off.”
It might have looked ridiculous, but it had been so thrilling, that dash across the surface of the water, the excitement of the first strokes of her wings that lifted her up…and then the world stretching beneath her as she reached for the sky.
She didn’t realize she was crying until Jack gave a little keen of dismay, scooted closer to her, and gathered her, unprotesting, into his arms. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m such a mess. You deserve someone who can make you happy, not a downer like me.”
Jack stroked her hair and held her close to his chest. For a moment Mia thought he was crying like she was…and then realized he was chuckling.
She drew back in confusion. “What’s so funny?”
He let her retreat to arm’s length, one hand cupping her jaw and making her skin tingle. “Being hurt and lost and alone isn’t the same as being a downer. You just need me to remind you how to laugh.”
“You don’t get it,” Mia said in frustration. “You don’t understand. I’m sad and depressed and it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to cheer me up and put up with my disability. You’d be better off without me.” Her loon gave a tremolo of grief and protest.
Jack’s face was as close to sober as Mia suspected it got and there was still a warm smile lurking at his mouth. “Have you ever played a game on easy mode and gotten bored?”
“I suppose?” Did he not realize that she was telling him to leave? Was he dense, or just stubborn? Mia didn’t care for people who couldn’t take a hint. Maybe he just knew that she didn’t really want him to go.
“My cousins and brothers and I, we’re part of a traveling show. We do a comedy and acrobatics routine, kind of like Cirque du Solei, but not all serious. I thought it would be the greatest job in the world because there’s nothing I like more in the world than to make people laugh. But it’s like that game, on a level that is so easy, it’s just tedious. Those people, they come to laugh, they’re ready to be entertained, it’s their whole purpose of being there. There’s no challenge to it. My talent is completely wasted.”
He was a ham, Mia decided. Even now, having what ought to be a very serious discussion, his eyes were twinkling and he was pressing his hand to his forehead dramatically.
“There!” he said in triumph, and Mia realized that she was giggling because he was too ridiculous to bear. “Now that’s a smile worth the effort.”
Then he was swooping down to claim her mouth with a swift, soft kiss.
Mia didn’t want it to end. The rest of her life went away, every frustration and pain was simply gone at his touch, at the sweet, desperate need that he woke in her. It didn’t matter that this was only a moment, it was this moment, and she felt whole again.
When he finally drew back, she realized that her shirt was unbuttoned and she was panting for breath. She was halfway into his lap, and the towel he was wearing did very little to hide the fact that he wanted her as badly as she wanted him.
“Come on,” he said unexpectedly, and to her shock, he rather suddenly stood up with her in his arms.
“What are you doing?” Mia demanded. “Where are we going?” She clutched at his shoulders, momentarily fearing a fall, but he was stronger than he looked and lifted her easily. She had never felt safer.
“We’re going into the water,” he said merrily. “I’ve got a hard-on to cool down, and you’re going to fly.”
* * *
The warm water of the little bay didn’t do much to chill Jack’s ardor, not with his mate standing naked and beautiful before him. She’d been game about taking off her clothing and limping out into the shallow waves with him. The dragon at the far end of the beach had given them a thoughtful appraisal and then turned to gaze out over the water as if the sight simply wasn’t that unusual.
They stood together in water that surged between waist-deep and up to their armpits. She crossed her free arm over her beautiful, slight breasts, holding him with the other as she kept the weight off of her bad leg. “I don’t understand,” she said faintly. “I don’t know how this could possibly work.”
“I’m going to throw you,” Jack said. “All you need is lift, a little boost to get you started. If something goes wrong, you’ll just fall in the water and I’ll come to get you. It’s perfectly safe. If I can toss Jonas’s lazy bulk high enough for a triple twist, I can fling a bird into the air high enough to catch a draft. Trust me, I’m an expert.”
She looked back at him with dark, sparkling eyes, clearly not used to trust. But there was another of those rare, precious smiles lurking behind her doubts, and Jack knew he couldn’t fail. “Try it,” he begged. He wanted to give this back to her more than anything else he’d ever wanted in his life. “If it doesn’t work, we’ve only gotten wet.”
She blushed then, and Jack wondered what kind of wet she was thinking about.
She nodded and shifted, bobbing into the water as a sleek, dark bird, her feathers stark white against black in a striking pattern. She tilted and turned in a circle, wings slightly spread as she fought for balance with one good leg, then gave a little trill as Jack put his hands beneath her and lifted her straight from the water.
Lighter than he was expecting, Jack was able to catapult her far up into the air, and for a moment he feared that he’d made a terrible mistake. He was going to meet his mate and then throw her to her death in the space of ten minutes, right in front of the dragon lifeguard.
Then her wings snapped out and she was flying.
It wasn’t the fixed-wing soar of an eagle, but it was flight, and she gave a loon’s haunting wail as she circled overhead in wider and wider spirals. Jack couldn’t understand how a sound could be so sad and so full of joy at the very same time, but he felt utterly full of elation that he’d been able to reunite her with the sky.
He fell sideways and splashed under the surface of the water as a dolphin, adding his own song to hers. It was too shallow within the reef wave break to do fancy jumps and flips, but he could scoot on the surface and swim in circles beneath her.
* * *
There was air beneath Mia’s wings again.
She was free and full of hope and felt like she’d been wrung out of all her emotions for the moment, left like a dry leaf in an updraft. She could still feel the ache in her bad leg, tucked up against her feathers, but it was less the sum of her life and more a small part of her equation.
She’d met her mate—her laughing, sunshine mate!—and he’d let her fly again.
The island beneath Mia seemed to flatten, the steep stairs reduced to a winding path through the resort.
Maybe it really was magic.
Maybe she really could be happy again.
At last, she returned, controlling her descent so that she splashed down with the barest bobble. She shook her head and dived under the waves, then stood as a human, hopping on one leg as Jack reached to catch her with his own human arms.
“I could fly,” she murmured into his chest, half sobbing and half laughing. “I could fly again!”
“Darling Mia,” Jack said into her wet hair. “Darling, brave, beautiful Mia.”
She drew away and looked up at him in wonder. “This doesn’t fix me,” she warned. “This isn’t a magic pill of happiness that erases all the pain and makes me normal and whole again.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Jack told her, and some of the saltwater on her face wasn’t ocean. “You should know that I have my own baggage,” he told her gravely.
“You do?” she said, alarmed by his serious turn. How much did they really know about each other?
“You met them,” he said, straight-faced. “Jonas and Josh and Julie and Jor—”
Mia felt her face split into a smile, free and full of relief and she had to kiss him for his teasing. She wound her arms up around his neck, then hissed in pain as a wave nearly lifted them from their feet and she stumbled getting her balance again.
“I’m only mostly kidding with that one,” Jack said more seriously as they waded slowly back to the shore. “I come with a pod, and they’re nosy and bossy and will be one hundred percent up in your business.”
Mia’s smile faltered. “Will they like me?”
“I know they will!” he promised. Then he gave her a sideways glance. “But it doesn’t matter if they do. Do you smell that? Have you eaten at the restaurant yet? It’s a treat, let me tell you. Are you hungry? I never did get an answer about whether you’d had dinner.”
Mia’s loon was pleased by the idea that their mate would feed them.
They dried off with his stolen towel and he wrapped it back around himself as Mia dressed and slung her purse over her shoulder. They wandered up the beach with Mia leaning as much on his arm as on her cane, which was not useful in the loose sand.
“I forgot how many stairs there were,” Mia said, looking up them.
“I can carry you,” Jack offered, then swiftly added, “or we can walk at whatever speed you’d like.”
She looked at him thoughtfully, then smiled. “I could use a lift,” she admitted. It hurt less to admit it than she had feared.
Jack stooped to pick her up, nearly lost his towel-wrap, and then carried her, giggling into his shoulder, up to her waiting hotel room.
It was a very long time before they made it to the restaurant.
* * *
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