Twenty-six

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When the front door swings open, I jump up from the window ledge, panic flooding through me before I identify the intruder as Reece.

He strides in, placing a bag on the bed whilst I try to return my heart rate to normal. He takes in my expression before peeling off his jacket, his thick eyebrows drawn together.

"Are you all right?" He asks, throwing his jacket on the bed before closing the distance between us. He rests his fingers underneath the curve of my chin before gently tilting my head to look at him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," I say in a tight voice, stepping away from his fingers before nodding toward the bed. "What's in the bag?"

"You were a better liar back in Marine World," Reece replies, though he doesn't press the issue. "Just some snacks and spare clothes." He moves toward the window now, edging the billowy curtains out of the way before peering out. Once he's satisfied there's nobody out there, he strides toward the bathroom door before looking at me over his shoulder. "I'm going to take a quick shower. Can you make some coffee?"

"Sure," I say, though inside I can feel my stomach swirling at the thought of doing something I have no experience of.

Still, despite not knowing how to perform such a simple task, I don't want Reece to see how much I'm struggling now that I'm in the real world. I don't want him to think all I'm good for is twirling and making guests happy. Maybe if I prove him right, that I can't survive in this new world, he'll try to take me back.

Reece gives me a tired smile before heading into the bathroom, and I stand frozen in the middle of the motel room as if somebody's flipped an off switch on me. I have always known what to do in Marine World, from what time I should flip my tail in a performance to how I'm supposed to interact with a guest. Now that I am faced with something I have no understanding of, it feels as if my brain is trying to shut down.

Reece must know that I've never had to make a cup of coffee before, so why would he ask me unless this is some kind of test to see how well I will cope on my own? And if it is a test, it is a test I want to pass. I want to prove to him–to myself–that I can do this, that I'm capable of being self-sufficient now I no longer have Marine World to rely on.

With a deep breath, my eyes skim over the rest of the room, landing on a small table where a tray filled with packets of tea and coffee sits. I pick up the packet labelled coffee before staring down at my now shaking hands. I'd seen Teresa make herself coffee back in the facility, and I thought maybe once I held the packet between my fingers, I'd suddenly know what to do.

I'd suddenly know how to be human.

Tears start to form, though I hold them in the same way I always have, as if the eyes of Marine World are still on me. The bathroom door creaks open and I drop the packet to the table before quickly wiping my eyes with the backs of my hands.

"Aura?" Reece moves beside me, but I still don't take my eyes off the table, afraid that if I look up, the tears will form all over again.

"I don't know how to," I say after a moment of silence.

"How to what?" Reece asks, sounding confused, and I involuntarily meet his gaze.

His hair is still damp and softly curled from his shower, his gray t-shirt now littered with droplets of water. My eyes briefly fall to the corners of his mouth, which are pulled downward into a frown.

"How to make coffee," I say, wishing my voice didn't have to shake.

Realization seems to flash across his features and he runs a hand through his hair, his jaw suddenly clenched in irritation. "I'm sorry," he says, his gaze softening. "When I asked, I completely forgot you–"

"Can't do anything?" I cut in, the tears threatening to make a reappearance, and Reece gives me a pointed look.

"Nobody can do something they've never done before," he says before ordering me to turn around. I hesitate before doing as I'm told.

He moves behind me and once my back is against his chest, his arms snake around the sides of me until I'm trapped in his embrace. I tense as he reaches for the coffee packet, his brown, muscular arm stretching past me before he opens up the packet and pours it into the mug.

"First, you have to boil the water in the kettle," Reece says in a low voice against my ear, flicking the switch on the kettle so that the light turns red.

I swallow hard, the feeling of Reece's body pressed against mine both thrilling and terrifying. I remember back to that time in the night enclosure, when Reece had caught me having a midnight swim. Those butterflies I'd felt fluttering against the walls of my stomach, the desire I'd had to know how his skin would feel against mine.

It is the same way I feel in this very moment, as if everything else in the world has faded away. They are feelings I don't quite know whether to embrace or run from, but I know which is the safer option of the two.

A/N

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