With a stygian flash, a dark hole opened in the hillside. It wasn’t a cave, but a patch of nothingness—the absence of everything normal and expected. Like a monstrous yawn, the opening widened until I could no longer see its edges, just a growing blackness with lumps of greater black moving inside it.
The little band of hikers continued up the trail, oblivious. As I watched, my vision telescope-clear, they rounded the last bend before the meadow… and were gone.
I struggled up from the darkness, blankets twisted strangling tight around me. With rising panic, my heart thumped as though it would beat its way out. Then I opened my eyes and saw only my familiar bedroom, clothes still where I had tossed them the night before. The morning sun shone cheerfully through the curtains. A glance at the clock made it nine a.m. Shaky but grateful, I rolled out and did my usual push-ups and sit-ups, adding an extra ten each to burn up the last dregs of adrenaline.
God, I hated waking like that—no memory of what the dream had been about, only a nasty mental aftertaste. Not that it happened all that often, but even once a year would be too much. A shave and a hot shower washed away more of the night’s residue. I dressed in khaki Dockers, a blue silk shirt from Armani, and my favorite Kenneth Cole loafers, and drove into town as usual. I managed to enjoy the board luncheon at the museum, and put on a pleasant face for a fellow member who was also a client when he asked if I’d located that first edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol he wanted… I hadn’t. But although my routine was comforting, an uneasy feeling of foreboding lingered well into the day. In fact, I didn’t forget the dream completely until I took an afternoon break at Starbucks. That’s when I saw her.
From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see all of her, but my inner vision filled in every detail. Her figure was slender, with just enough curves, her dark hair twisted into some sort of knot on the back of her head. The clingy lavender dress she wore looked to be designer made—DVF, perhaps. The classic pearl jewelry looked expensive, although at that distance, I couldn’t really be certain. There was a faint hint of perfume in the air—Evyan’s White Shoulders—but that had to be my imagination. She was beautiful, that’s the one thing I was sure of. Even from twenty feet away, through a crowd of people, and with only a single glance at her profile, I knew. I was looking at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. At the corner, the light changed from red to green, and she and the rest of the pedestrians walked on.
I blinked a little, wondering if I had imagined the sudden vision. No, whatever else she was, the lady wasn’t imaginary. My mind, odd though it might be, wasn’t in the habit of making things up, even using the goddess Aphrodite as a template.
It surprised me a bit to find myself thinking that way about a woman. Not that I didn't look at the opposite sex with pleasure. I looked at almost everyone that way; I always had. But mostly it was just looking, admiring from afar. I rarely thought about getting involved with a woman, and that was just what I found myself thinking about. I had seen her once, and I wanted to see her again.
What was going on in the deep, dark recesses of my mind would have been difficult for anyone else to imagine. I hadn’t jumped up or called out to her, hadn’t tried to catch her or even craned my neck to see where she had gone. In fact, I hadn’t moved at all, except to take another sip from my double shot mocha latte. Starbucks was busy and I wasn’t about to give up my choice sidewalk table for anything less than a hurricane, as unlikely as one of those might be in downtown Denver, Colorado. Disturbing dreams were not my only quirk. I got feelings about things, and this particular feeling was telling me that I would see the lady again. All I had to do was what I always did and I’d see her again… soon.
I didn’t know whether to smile or frown. My life was perfect just as it was. I didn’t need complications. Who did? Not all those button-down business types who were starting dutifully back to the office after their executive coffee breaks. Not the secretaries, both male and female, who had already scurried off to be sure to beat the bosses back to their desks. Not even the cute little server who looked at me questioningly from the doorway, wondering if I was about to rush away like everyone else. I decided on a smile, just for him, and he brought me another double mocha without my even having to ask. Perfect.
Fifteen minutes later, I regarded the tables around me, empty now except for the grandmotherly pair surrounded by shopping bags and the older gentleman with the fluffy white Bichon Frise on a rhinestoned lavender leash. It was a beautiful day, and I was one of the few still here to enjoy it.
Complications? I shook my head thoughtfully. No, I’d sit this one out, thank you. When, and if, the beautiful stranger made her next appearance, I’d just turn and walk away… and that would be that. Feeling better for having made the logical, safe, and sane decision, I was ready to enjoy the rest of my day. George at Blue Moon Books had promised me the first look at a shipment of rare editions coming in this afternoon. I had a feeling that one of them was meant for me.
Sensing another familiar something, I glanced up. Half a block away, a harried-looking mom with not one, but two whining toddlers in tow was headed in my direction. I had no desire to be there when she sat the kiddies down next to me to order chocolate chip cookies and milk.
I stood up, leisurely stretching in the direction of the cloudless sky. A gentle breeze ruffled my hair; the sun warmed my face. I’d already tipped the cute server generously and he waved at me discreetly from the doorway. I gave him half a smile, this time, feeling not the slightest inclination to respond to the invitation plain in his eyes. Nope, no more complications.
I was halfway to the corner across from the Tattered Cover bookstore when I heard the little kids’ voices raised in petulant howls. Without looking back, I knew just where they were sitting. Starbucks was out of chocolate chip cookies.
The sun was going down at last. I loved these long summer days. I could spend all the time I wanted in town and still drive home before dark. Not that the headlights on my yellow and black Miata didn’t work, but I enjoyed the majestic, ever-changing vistas of mountains, trees, and sky as the road curved its way out of the city.
Not so long ago, I would have walked home, my path well lit by streetlights, to one of those nice new penthouses found down around Larimer Square. But fight it though I might, my life has a tendency toward complication. The latest place I hung my nonexistent hat was somewhat larger than my lofty downtown aerie. All but a few of the twenty or so rooms in the eclectically styled stone structure were still closed off, awaiting their promised, eventual renovation, but the house wasn’t the important thing. What mattered was the land: thirty acres of fenced meadow and forest, hidden in the rolling hills off Highway 285. Its gated and almost inaccessible entrance was at the end of a barely paved single lane path not much wider than a driveway.
The sun had dipped behind the mountains, and night arrived as quickly and completely as it does when one is far from city lights. I smiled as the little car easily negotiated the tree-lined hairpin turns. The road could be a tight squeeze for anything larger than my little beauty. In fact, when the water heater expired last month, we had to airlift the plumbing crew in by helicopter.
When I pulled up in front of the garage door, the house was dark; the only lights on anywhere were the motion sensor floods activated by my arrival. But I knew that didn’t mean anything. I got out of the car, rummaging in the Miata’s minute trunk for my purchases: two silk dress shirts, a couple of nice bottles of champagne, a fresh baguette wrapped in brown paper, some assorted cheeses and fruit, a leather-bound copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the latest edition of the American Journal of Psychology. In spite of how well I had adjusted to my oddities, I still thought it sensible to consider the possibility that they were all in my head. Perhaps one day I might find my particular aberration described in detail inside the journal’s worthy pages. And sometimes I thought I’d be better off buying an issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. At least then I’d be entertained while I read.
I had my arms loaded and was fumbling for my keys when I heard it—a rustling behind me in the undergrowth, just beyond the reach of the floodlights. Something big was out there. Shit.
I briefly considered a run for the door, or trying to slip back into the car I’d already locked, but I didn’t think I’d make it. Instead, I put my packages down and turned bravely to face the dark. My eyes adjusted quickly, but not quickly enough to catch more than a shadow before the thing began to move. With a ghostly lack of sound, it came toward me at the speed of a freight train. In only seconds, a ball of absolute blackness was flying through the air.
When it hit, I fell flat on my back and rapped my head smartly against the hard-packed ground. I didn’t lose consciousness, but some little lights, completely unrelated to the stars appearing overhead, danced around behind my eyes.
The weight now resting heavily on my chest had taken my breath away, and between that and a sharp pain in my head, I was not quite with it for a bit. The first thing I saw, when I could see again, were two large green eyes, spaced wide apart and set like emeralds in a glossy, coal-black face. Small round ears topped the flattened skull, and as I watched, transfixed, the large mouth, like the entrance to a forbidden cave, opened, jaws revealing rows of needle-sharp stalactites.
I braced myself as I felt a tongue the size of a washcloth and the texture of coarse sandpaper lap its way up my neck and over one ear until it had thoroughly dampened the hair on the side of my head. Paws as big as dinner plates kneaded my chest contentedly, their sharp claws not altogether sheathed. The hot breath on my face smelled, not of raw meat as you might suppose, but of mint.
I couldn’t get up, but I could speak. "Dammit, Glen! How many times do I have to tell you? This is not funny!"
The slow, determined licking continued.
I pushed ineffectively at the almost two hundred solid pounds of muscle and fur crouched comfortably on my body, weighing me down from chest to groin.
"C’mon!" I yelled, now a bit more than irritated. "Keep that up and you’re going to take my face off!"
The deep-throated purr that had started almost at once in the cat’s barrel-sized chest turned slowly into masculine laughter, and I found myself staring into blue-green eyes framed by golden lashes, and holding a double handful of muscular, naked man. If I hadn’t been absolutely sure about the naked part, the feel of his erection thrusting its way between my legs would have brought it home to me. All of a sudden, I was glad to exchange the rough tongue for a gentler sort of kiss.
Things might have progressed from there, but I was still fully clothed and the small, but sharp, rock I had fallen on did nothing to add to the charm of the moment. When I squirmed uncomfortably and continued to push him away, Glen relented and rose, even offering a hand to help me up.
Feeling the back of my head gingerly—no blood—I bent to retrieve the packages. "You’re just lucky you didn’t break the wine bottles, you dumbass," I chided.
He laughed again, closing the trunk of the car with a bang. "Think I’m stupid? I waited until you put them down."
I shook my head, wincing slightly. Great. Well, I was a big enough person to take a joke at my expense—even if it was the third time this month.
Glen draped one arm across my shoulders and relieved me of a couple of bags as we walked toward the house.
"Ethan, my love, you take life much too seriously."
I wanted to hit him, but I had to laugh instead. I had enough bumps and scrapes without bruising my hand on Glen’s iron jaw—or any other part of his solid anatomy. Shapeshifters, if Glen was any example, seemed to be pretty tough. Nothing bothered Glen much; he never even caught a cold. And since I’d been hanging out with him, I’d had reason to be grateful, on more than one occasion, that I healed fast too.
I thought about what Glen said as I watched him stretch up for the wineglasses hanging over the counter. The muscles moving under that golden skin were pretty distracting. But maybe he was right. I did take life too seriously… sometimes.
Sure, Glen and his “condition” made my life different—more difficult in some ways. When we found each other and made a commitment, I’d felt it wise to sell the penthouse and move to this place in the middle of nowhere. But I also had Glen, in my life and in my bed, and that was worth a lot of extra trouble.
Of course, there were things that Glen took seriously, too, though he might try to deny it—his job, for one. I could never talk him into taking more than two vacations a year, or working less than four days a week. He liked being a financial advisor, and he was damned good at it. In fact, that was how I met him, though most of his clients weren’t trust fund babies like me—just everyday people who needed his sound advice.
I sat on a stool at the breakfast bar and watched Glen set out our dinner. He was perfectly comfortable in his nakedness, as well he might be. Even without the fur and tail, there was plenty of the beast still showing in the liquid way he moved, almost gliding across the tiled floor.
In a suit and tie, he was still an imposing sight, but seemed somewhat tamer. Until, that is, you got a good look at his eyes. One close-up glance had been enough to melt me into a puddle at his feet. And he’d known it too, damn it. I prided myself on being a bit aloof from it all, but with his insight as well as those extra animal senses, I could rarely hide anything from Glen. We’d gone from business to pleasure in one afternoon. That had been over a year ago now, but just looking at him still gave me the shivers.
He turned abruptly to glance at me, as though he could feel my eyes on him. He lowered his head, the pupils of his eyes going to cat slits for a moment as his nostrils flared. A slow, deceptively lazy smile spread over his fine features, and he moved in on me like I was his chosen prey. I didn’t even have time to scream. Well, not right then, anyway.
We lay on the bed, parts of us draped over each other like kittens in a basket. Glen’s fingers idly twisted my damp pubic hair into little curlicues as I stroked his smooth back. Funny, he wasn’t very furry at all when not in cat form… except for his face. I rubbed a finger against the grain of his bearded cheek. He grimaced and stopped to scratch the spot while I smiled.
“I saw a woman today.” I was too content to wonder at myself for mentioning it. After all, I’d already decided to ignore the potential situation.
Glen’s ears pricked—figuratively speaking in human form, of course. “A woman? Anyone special?”
Shit, he knew me too well. I wished I’d been thinking before I spoke. But what harm could it do just to talk about it? “Well, I don’t know. I only saw her for a moment. She just seemed….” I couldn’t think of the right words.
Glen lifted his head, leaning on one elbow to look down at me. Somewhere in the past hour, I’d loosened the thong that held my long hair back, and, catlike, he was careful not to lean on any of the dark strands spread out on the pillow.
“Special?” he finished for me.
I caught the question. There hadn’t been anyone else in my life since I’d fallen for Glen. Would he be jealous—even of my mentioning someone I found attractive? He’d told me that he thought of women sexually too… as I did. I hadn’t considered what this might mean for our relationship. But… no, I wasn’t going to get involved with her in any way.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Her face floated up before me as though imprinted on the backs of my retinas. Even though I’d just had very satisfying sex, I felt things stir in my lower regions. Glen took quiet note of that.
His voice was soft. “Maybe you’d better tell me about her.”
There wasn’t much to tell, not many facts, anyway. First, I tried to make light of it, but ended up describing in detail the way I’d felt when I saw her—the sense of destiny, of wheels turning out of my control. Both the anticipation and the frustration I felt at knowing I had no choice, that she would be a part of my life whether I wanted her to be or not.
When I ran down at last, Glen was cradling me on his shoulder, one strong hand stroking my hair. He didn’t say anything for a while, then… “Is that the way you felt when we met?”
He was looking somewhere far away, over my head, beyond the stone walls and into the lonely dark. I grasped a handful of his golden hair, turned his eyes to mine, and waited until he truly saw me. I knew I had to be completely honest. “Maybe, at first, a little… but not now, never now. You’re a part of me, my love—you have to know that.”
His eyes went kitty-cat green for just a split second, and I thought his beard began to darken… then he smiled and was his everyday self again. Glen’s changing was more controlled by his mood than anything else, and the phase of the moon seemed to have little to do with it.
“I do know that, my friend.” His voice held a gentle, purring note. “And I love you, too.” He kissed me and I marveled that I felt so strongly about anyone. After spending most of my life without a companion, I now had someone to share things with. That he was amazing, and wonderful, and unique were undeserved extras.
He pulled back, now looking deeply into my eyes. “What will be, will be, Ethan. Maybe we shouldn’t try to fight this; just wait and let it play itself out.”
Good advice, I supposed bitterly. Always best to go along with the inevitable. Then I caught the part about “we.” Yes. What happened to me now happened to him too. Knowing he accepted that gave me a surprisingly warm feeling.
Sitting up, I rolled him over, stretching myself on top of him, full length. We were nearly the same height, and I could comfortably kiss him while grinding my pelvis into his. I kissed him quite thoroughly, and nipped the side of his neck because I knew he liked it. After a while, I moved lower to bite and suckle his tender nipples. When he spread his legs wide and pressed his hardness against my belly, I knew he wanted what I did.
He yowled when I entered him, his head thrown back as though in pain. But I didn’t stop. I’d asked him about this behavior the first time it happened because I didn’t want to hurt him, whatever his powers of recovery. He’d told me not to worry, that it was a cat thing… I wouldn’t understand.
So I didn’t worry at all.