Bound by Love
I swear you’re part mermaid, Bridget. You know you weren’t born in a hospital, right? I just found you wandering on the sand.
My mother’s oft-repeated words floated back to me as I stood looking out over the beach. I loved to swim—as my dad did—but my mother wouldn’t so much as dip a toe in the water. She used to take me to the beach every week in the summertime when I was a kid, and she always used to tease me that my father and I were fantastical merpeople—or that we had saltwater in our veins.
As I looked out over the water and saw the first rosy rays of the predawn on the horizon, I felt the same old pull to the gently plashing waves that I always felt.
I wanted to run out and dive into the water.
But the ocean would have to wait this morning. I had a business meeting at 10 a.m., and I didn’t want to take a chance on what the saltwater might do to my hair. My hair was thick and straight and brown, and most of the time, it took being doused in ocean water pretty well. But every once in a while it went haywire, and I didn’t want to risk that happening.
This was an important meeting—and I didn’t want to look crazy.
So I contented myself instead with a run on the boardwalk.
I’d been in this little resort town for three days now, and each morning before I went swimming or running, I stopped first by a marble statue that sat on the beach.
This morning was no exception, and I slipped off my sneakers and walked across the sand.
The statue sat just beyond the boardwalk across from a little shop that sold saltwater taffy.
The statue was made of marble, and it depicted a mermaid. According to the little weathered plaque that sat next to it, the statue had once been part of a fountain in Italy, and the statue had been salvaged from it before the fountain itself was demolished.
I reached out a hand to touch the cool marble, and I admired the graceful lines of the statue. It seemed to me that the mermaid was the patron saint of this place and watched over everyone. Her placid gray eyes certainly seemed wise, and I wondered about the things she had seen—both in her homeland and here in this new place she’d been brought to.
Once I had done greeting her for the morning, I went back to the boardwalk and dusted the sand off my feet.
Then I began my run.
On my way back, I happened to see that my mermaid friend had company.
It was still early, and the sun itself was now peeking over the horizon.
The sunrise was spectacular.
But the man sitting on the sand next to the mermaid didn’t see it.
His broad, bronze back was slumped, and his dark head was bowed. His arms were wrapped around his knees, and he appeared to be staring down at his feet.
It was a strange posture for someone to take on the beach, and I began to wonder if the man was all right.
I hurried over to him.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you okay?”
The man looked up at me, and I was struck by the beauty and the misery in his face. He had very brown eyes with thick, black lashes, and dark stubble outlined his firm chin. But his eyes were misty, and his full lips were drawn down at the corners.
I was about to ask my question again when the man turned away from me.
“Do not look at me, bella signorina,” he said. “You should not see me like this.”
The man’s voice was deep and resonant with a warmth underlying it, and he had a thick Italian accent.
I was startled. “Are you okay? Are you lost?”
The man threw back his head and gave a short bark of unhappy laughter.
“You ask me if I, Antonio, am lost, and I say to you yes—but not in the way you think.”
The man swiped at his eyes quickly and then turned to look at me again. “May I ask you a question, signorina?”
“Have you ever known that you had a destiny before you—a fate? And that even though this destiny wasn’t a bad one—you still couldn’t avoid it? You would have to do it, and you had no choice?”
“I’m not sure I believe in destiny,” I said. “Are you saying you have one now?”
Antonio looked away again—out over the water. “Ah, but you will laugh, signorina, you will laugh.”
I did feel like laughing, but not at him. I felt like laughing with joy. I felt a strong pull toward this strange man sitting by the mermaid statue on the beach—and not just because he was handsome. I could sense in him a zest for life, a sense of adventure.
And I wanted to know more about him.
“No, I won’t laugh,” I said. “Please—go ahead and tell me.”
“Mia nonna—my grandmother—has a great gift. She can see the future, and she makes prophecies. And she has made one about me.”
I waited patiently, and Antonio scrutinized my face. Apparently, he didn’t see any disapproval or derision there, and he went on.
“Mia nonna said to me, you will journey to a faraway place. On July 20, you will sit by the side of a mermaid and stare out to sea. At dawn, you will see a beautiful siren emerging from the waves. This siren is the woman you will marry. A jester will try to separate the two of you. But you will persevere. The two of you will be married.”
I glanced out at the ocean. It was dawn, but there was no one—beautiful or otherwise—emerging from the water.
“That’s a very pretty prophecy,” I said. “But are you sure your nonna was right? I don’t see anyone here but us.”
Antonio hung his head once again.
“She is never wrong. And I do not wish to marry a siren, no matter how beautiful. I want to marry a woman of my own choice. And now I am deprived of that choice. I am bound by love.”
“Well, I’m sure your nonna wouldn’t want you to feel trapped. I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to feel like you had no choice.”
“But the prophecy—”
“I’m sure if you see this siren lady, you can tell her it’s nice to meet her, but you’d like to make up your own mind.”
Antonio laughed then—a hearty, infectious sound.
“Ah, yes. What a fine thing to say. I think mia nonna would like you—even if you disagreed with her prophecy.”
He sobered and was silent for a moment. “But very seriously, I am bound by this prophecy. When the time comes, I will follow it.”
My watch beeped then, and I glanced at it.
It was time for me to be getting back.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Antonio. “I have to—”
He waved an expressive hand. “No, no—it is okay. You have been very kind, and you have listened to a crazy man ramble. But now you have things to do, and I must stay here and await my fate.”
“Will you be all right?” I asked.
He smiled wanly. “I will be fine—better now that I have met you.”
“No, no—do not tell me your name. I want to remember you only as the lovely, mysterious lady who tried to help me.”
I was surprised for a moment—I hadn’t been planning to tell him my name.
Truthfully, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had been going to tell him—I’d just had a vague feeling that I wanted to help him in some way.
“Well, good luck with everything,” I said.
Antonio gave me a sad look—almost as if he wished I wouldn’t leave. “Addio, signorina. I wish we’d met under other circumstances.”
I turned to go.
As I walked toward my hotel, I glanced back and saw him still sitting by the statue with his head bowed once again.
I sighed and hurried on.
I got ready in my hotel room and then sat for twenty minutes going over my notes.
After that it was time for me to go down to my meeting with Richard Harper.
Richard Harper was a local business magnate who was building a new flagship skyscraper, and he wanted to hire a production crew to film a documentary about it. The filming would cover everything—from the early planning stages through construction to completion.
If I could land this job, it would mean big things for my tiny production company.
I took a deep breath and then left my room and headed to the elevator.
As I made my way through the hotel to the ballroom where our meeting was to be held, I found myself thinking of Antonio, the strange man from the beach. I wondered if his mysterious siren had ever shown up, and if so, I wondered how it had gone.
I found myself wondering further if he would be open to dating other people if he and the siren hadn’t hit it off. I began to wonder then if Antonio and I would relocate to Italy if we became a couple, or if he would be open to living here.
I realized with a start that I had reached Ballroom E where my meeting with Richard was to be held, and I paused for a moment to clear my head and focus on the business at hand.
I banished all thoughts of whirlwind romances from my mind.
Then I walked in.
Richard and my AV equipment were already waiting inside the vast room, and I walked up to him and shook his hand.
He had a shock of white hair and a very round, red nose, which was somehow at odds with his stern countenance.
“Richard Harper,” he said in a voice that was as firm as his handshake.
“Bridget Connelly,” I replied.
“Well, Ms. Connelly, I hope you’re prepared to impress me today.”
Richard took a seat, and I walked over to the table to pick up my clicker.
I launched into my presentation, ignoring the butterflies that had begun to flutter in my stomach, and I was relieved to find that the AV equipment was working just as it should.
I managed to get through my presentation without making any embarrassing stumbles or forgetting any important points.
At the end, I shut down my slideshow.
“Any questions?” I asked.
Richard stared at me, stone-faced, with his arms crossed.
A long silence ensued.
I stood in the quiet ballroom, uncertain what to do next.
At long last, Richard broke the silence.
“I’d like you to join me for lunch today. That way, you can meet my lead architect, Joe Milano.”
“Does that mean I got the job?” I said.
I tried not to let my joy and relief show on my face.
“Thank you, Richard,” I said.
“Just don’t let me down. I’m putting a lot of faith in you.”
We left the ballroom and traveled through the sprawling hotel to one of its three restaurants.
Along the way, Richard extolled the virtues of Joe, the lead architect.
“He’s a bright young man,” Richard said. “I think you’re going to enjoy working with him.”
When we reached the restaurant, Joe had yet to arrive, so after we were seated, Richard and I began to discuss some details of the project—we would actually make my employment official once I had met with Joe.
As I sipped at a glass of water, I happened to see a familiar figure enter the restaurant.
It was a man, tall and dark, with dark eyes and thick eyelashes. Last time I’d seen him, however, he hadn’t been wearing a suit.
It was Antonio.
He approached our table, and Richard turned to look at him.
“This way, my boy, this way!”
Antonio saw Richard and hurried over to us.
The two shook hands warmly, and then Richard turned to me.
“Bridget, I’d like you to meet Joe Milano.”
Antonio looked at me, and his face turned bright red.
“Joe?” I said.
“Yes,” Richard replied. “He’s an amazing architect. And Joe, this is Bridget, the brilliant filmmaker who’s going to cover this entire project from start to finish.”
Antonio stepped over to shake my hand.
“Joe?” I said again.
“Yes.” His eyes seemed to be pleading with me not to say anything further.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
Joe looked deeply relieved.
I happened to glance over at Richard, and I saw that he was watching us shrewdly.
He said nothing, however, and we all sat down and made small talk.
I noticed very quickly that Joe no longer had an Italian accent.
Soon we ordered lunch, and after it arrived, our conversation turned to business.
Joe turned out to be articulate and very knowledgeable—I wasn’t surprised at all that Richard had chosen him.
But I was still wondering why he’d impersonated an Italian tourist on the beach.
At one point, Richard had to excuse himself to take a call, and he walked away from the table.
After he disappeared, Joe turned to me.
“Thank you for not telling Richard.”
I couldn’t help teasing him just a little.
“Telling him what? That your real name is Antonio?”
Joe blushed once again. “Well, actually, my middle name is Antonio. I’m Joseph Antonio Milano. And my grandmother does call me ‘Antonio.’ She doesn’t like the name Joseph.”
“So that part was true at least?” I said.
Joe ran a hand over his hair. “The whole thing was true—I guess that’s what makes this all so embarrassing. My grandmother really did make that prophecy about me.”
“What about the accent? That wasn’t real.”
“No—it’s just, my parents are from Italy and a lot of my family still lives there. Somehow it seemed like the thing to do at the moment.”
“And you said you were from far away.”
“I am. I’m from Oregon. This is my first time on the East Coast.”
“So what happened with your siren?” I said.
Joe smiled sheepishly. “I waited till the last possible moment for her to come out of the waves.”
“She never showed up.”
“Oh,” I said. I tried to ignore the happy fluttering sensation I felt.
“I just can’t understand it,” Joe said. “Nonna is never wrong.”
Richard returned to the table, and we finished lunch.
At the end, he ushered us out of the restaurant and down to a private office.
“Come in, come in,” he said.
The office was small, with just enough space for a desk and three chairs.
Richard waved us to the two guest chairs, and then after he closed the door, he sat down behind the desk.
“Before I give you two the contracts, there is one last item—a test if you will.”
Richard reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a white feather, which he placed on the desk.
“I call this my truth feather, and I always carry it with me. Anyone in its presence must speak the absolute truth. Do you agree?”
“Yes, of course,” I said promptly. “I always speak the truth.”
“Not a problem,” Joe said. “Ask me anything about my business, and I’ll be happy to tell you about it.”
Richard looked at the two of us, and it seemed to me that his eyes were twinkling in an unpleasant way over his round, red nose.
“So you agree to tell the truth?”
“Yes.” Joe and I replied together.
Richard fixed his eyes on Joe.
“What did you think about Bridget when you first met her?”
A slight reddish tinge suffused Joe’s face, but he replied readily.
“I thought she was beautiful.”
I only had a moment to let that sink in before Richard turned to me.
“And what did you think of Joe when you first met him?”
I replied carefully but truthfully. “I thought that…I wanted to help him.”
“True or false?” Richard said. “When you saw each other today in the restaurant that was the first time you had ever met.”
I glanced at Richard. His eyes were dancing malevolently over his red nose.
“False,” I said. The question made me a little uncomfortable, but I didn’t see any reason not to answer it—there was no way Richard could guess at any of the rest of it.
The answer seemed to delight Richard, and his eyes gleamed even brighter.
He continued his questions along the same lines, and somehow I couldn’t stop myself from answering them. Soon he had the whole story—the beach, the mermaid statue, Nonna’s prophecy, and the Italian accent.
As I was talking, Joe’s face just kept getting redder and redder.
Eventually, he got up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Joe!” I said. “Joe!”
I ran out after him.
Unfortunately, there was a bank of elevators near the office, and I reached them just in time to hear a loud ding and watch a set of doors close.
Joe was gone.
I turned in the direction of Richard and the office, but I realized that I didn’t want to go back in there.
Instead, I got on the elevator myself and went up to my room.
I went in and sat at the little desk.
I had a terrible feeling that I’d ruined everything.
I’d lost the contract for my fledgling company.
But most importantly, I’d hurt and embarrassed Joe.
Stupid truth feather, I thought to myself.
But I knew the feather hadn’t really been at fault. I could have refused to answer the questions. Instead, I just kept talking.
I moved from the desk to the bed, and I flung an arm across my eyes.
After a little while, I fell asleep.
I woke up to hear my phone buzzing, and I hurried across the room to pick it up.
There was a text from Richard.
Marvelous meeting today. Appreciate your honesty. You’re hired! Meet me tomorrow for breakfast. Give you the contract then. Suggest you look it over carefully—have your lawyer look over it too.
I stared at the text, flabbergasted.
A moment later, there was another one.
Here’s Joe’s number. In case you two would like to “chat” some more.
And a number was indeed included in the text.
As I stared down at my phone, too stunned to even move, yet another text popped up.
This time it was from the number that Richard had identified as Joe’s.
Can we meet?
Joe? I texted back.
I felt a strange mixture of excitement and nerves—I was glad he was still talking to me.
Where? I said.
There’s a coffee shop in the front lobby of this hotel. Tons of people around. How about there?
Sure, I replied. See you in about ten minutes.
I hurried downstairs.
The coffee shop was indeed crowded as Joe had said, and I spotted him in the corner behind a knot of people.
He waved at me, and I slipped through the tangle of people to join him.
Joe was seated at a tiny table with two very tall chairs, and I was heartened to see how his face lit up when he saw me.
But before he could say anything, I rushed to get my words out first.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out.
“It’s okay,” Joe said.
“No, it’s not okay,” I said. “I never should have said all those things.”
“It’s really okay. I shouldn’t have gone running out of there like that.”
“Leaving was perfectly understandable. I would have done the same thing.”
Joe gave me a small smile and glanced around. “Would you like to get some coffee?”
Under ordinary circumstances, I probably would have—the scent in the air was delicious.
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t think I could eat or drink anything. My stomach is in knots. Joe, I really am sorry.”
“I know what you mean,” Joe said. He gave me a sympathetic look. “But seriously, you don’t owe me an apology. That was a high-pressure situation, and I imagine you had a lot riding on getting this job.”
I sighed and finally climbed up onto a chair. “Yes, I did.”
Joe nodded. “I thought so.”
He paused. “I asked you to come down here because I wanted to tell you something. Richard offered me the job—for real this time.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s great.” I took a deep breath. “Richard offered me the job, too.”
Joe nodded again.
“You don’t seem surprised,” I said.
“Even after that—scene?”
Joe glanced around uneasily. “I was surprised—at first. And then I remembered that Richard has something of a reputation.”
Joe glanced around again. “For liking to work with people he knows he can manipulate.”
I smiled ruefully. “I guess he knows he can get me to talk about uncomfortable topics now.”
Someone jostled my chair, and I looked at Joe sharply. “Why did you mention that there were a ton of people here at the coffee shop? Was that for a particular reason?”
Joe looked a little sheepish. “I guess I thought we wouldn’t run into Richard in a place this crowded—and even if we did, he probably wouldn’t be able to overhear us. This whole thing has been weird, and I just didn’t want to run into him again today. And yet a part of me is still really glad I got the job.”
“I feel the same way. My production company’s new, and we haven’t had a lot of work. This job would mean a lot.”
Joe nodded. “I just struck out on my own after leaving a very big firm. This would really help me to get a start and get my feet under me. I could make a name for myself with this job.”
There was a buzz from my phone then and a corresponding jingle from Joe’s.
I dug my phone out of my purse and glanced at the waiting text.
It was from Richard.
Forgot to tell you the breakfast place. Let’s not meet in the hotel.
It was followed by the address of a diner out on the boardwalk.
Joe looked up at me.
“Did you get a text from Richard?”
Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“So what do you think? Do you want to work together?”
“Yes,” I said.
Joe nodded, and it seemed to me that he looked disappointed.
“But not his way,” I said.
Joe looked up at me and smiled.
We both texted Richard then.
And we both turned him down.
But we struck up a partnership of our own.
A year and a week later, Joe and I were back on the same beach where we had first met, sitting in the shade of the mermaid statue that had once graced a fountain in Italy.
Joe and I were getting married in a few days, right on this beach, and his nonna and the rest of his Italian relatives were flying in for the ceremony.
Joe now knew that I loved the water, and I now knew that he loved to travel and learn languages, so we had combined our passions, and I had now swum in the Mediterranean Sea.
And Joe’s Italian had improved considerably since his earliest attempts at an accent.
We were currently watching the sun sparkle on the water—and having a familiar, well-worn argument.
“Nonna called it,” Joe was saying. “She was spot on.”
“No, she wasn’t,” I said.
“I did meet you on that fateful day, and now we’re getting married.”
“Yes, but as I recall, the prophecy said I’d be coming out of the water. And I walked to you across the beach.”
“A minor point,” Joe replied with a wave of his hand. “Did I ever mention that ‘sirena’ is actually the Italian word for mermaid?”
“Yes, you did. Many times.”
“And you, my dear Bridget, are definitely a mermaid—I’ve seen you swim. So you’re the mermaid of the prophecy. And Richard was the jester.”
I laughed as I thought of him. “He certainly was.”
“It was fate all the way,” Joe said.
“I think we made our own choice,” I replied.
Joe lifted my hand out into the sunlight, and we both watched the tiny diamond on my finger sparkle.
When Joe had initially gone looking for an engagement ring, he’d mentioned that he was looking for a blue stone for me to symbolize my love of water. I’d gently suggested that I might prefer a more traditional ring, and Joe had gone off to look again without finding anything that was quite right. And then Nonna had presented Joe with her own engagement ring—a lovely, antique ring with a small, clear diamond and a band with etchings that looked like tiny waves.
It was exactly the right ring.
I held it up to the sky now and admired it.
Joe nuzzled my hair and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Bound by love—just like Nonna said. What a wonderful place to be.”
“I’ll have to thank Nonna again when I see her,” I murmured. “This ring is absolutely perfect.”
“What did I tell you?” Joe said. “Nonna is never wrong.”
© 2019 by Catherine Mesick
Image by Stefan Keller/Pixabay
Thanks very much for reading!