“Thanks, I had a great time.” Sammy grinned down at the pleasant-looking guy and pulled his keys from his pocket. “Want to come in?”
Arnold smiled, but it seemed kind of… weird. “Uh, no, thanks. It was fun.”
Sammy paused opening the door. Was the guy uncomfortable because he didn’t know how to ask for a kiss? Should I make the first move? Maybe if he puckered up a little? Hells, it had been so long since he’d had a boyfriend, he was out of practice. “Maybe we can take in a movie next weekend?” There, that should show Arnold he really liked the evening and wanted to do it again.
Arnold looked down at his feet. “Yeah, maybe. So you’re friends with Chen, right?”
“Yeah.” Everybody at Manhattan University knew that Samlyn “Sammy” Raphael, Jimmy Janx, Marvin Chen, and Alvin “Alvish” McMasters were best friends.
“Does he have a boyfriend?”
Sammy frowned. “Chen’s straight. But I don’t think he has a girlfriend, unless he got one over the summer. Why? Who wants to know?”
Those feet were really interesting. “I guess I did. He’s so handsome, and I knew he was your friend, and I thought maybe… I guess I hoped.”
Sammy’s heart stopped beating for a second. Or at least that was how it felt. “I see. So you took me out for burgers to ask about Chen? Figured he must be gay too?”
“Yeah. That’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, he’s your friend and all. It’s not like we were on a date or anything.”
Sammy sighed. “Yes, we’re great friends. I’m a great friend. Like I said, he’s straight. See you at school.” Sammy keyed open the door and pushed inside.
He heard Arnold say “Thanks” as he closed it in his face.
Sammy pressed his back against the door. Rude. He wasn’t usually rude. No, au contraire. He was the best fucking friend on the planet. So good a friend that nobody could see him any other way. Gods, he was tired of it. He was tired of a lot of things.
He negotiated in the dark across the crowded single room past his painting corner. He stepped around the easel and the taboret where he stored his paints to the bed behind the screen. He flipped on the light beside his bed, went into the small bathroom, brushed his teeth and peed, then pulled off his jeans and T-shirt and crawled into bed.
Fuckity fuck! What had he been thinking? He ought to be ashamed. He didn’t even like Arnold that much, but when the guy had asked him to go out, he’d been flattered. He wanted a boyfriend so bad. Well, actually he wanted a specific boyfriend. Alvish. But since Sammy was stupid enough to have the hots for his BFF, who happened to be straight and in love with every big pair of tits at the university, Sammy deserved every disappointment he got.
He flipped over on his side and punched his pillow. Oh yeah, and Alvish also happened to be human. Which, though Alvish didn’t know it, Sammy was not. Nor were Chen and Jimmy. They were witches. But, of course, Chen and Jimmy were great witches. And Sammy was a crappy one.
So while he was laying his litany of disappointments before the gods, he might also mention his… powers. Or lack thereof.
Jimmy Janx? Now there was a witch with power. Jimmy had gotten married to Lavender Karonoff after he’d helped Killian Barth, the Witch Master, save the whole damned witches’ community. Together they’d overcome the conniving Witches’ Council that had been lying to the coven for years. Without Killian and Jimmy, the witches’ race would be well on its way to extinction. Jimmy was powerful. Jimmy was married. Jimmy was everything Sammy wasn’t. Sammy didn’t begrudge his friend one ounce of his success, but it was hard not to measure himself against Jimmy and come up very short.
No boyfriend. Crappy powers.
Some witch he was.
He flipped off the bedside light.
Ouch. Sammy rolled over and winced. His bony hips pressed into the hardwood. Not again.
What had he painted this time? He started to open his eyes to look at the easel but shook his head and settled back on the floor. No need. He didn’t want to see. He’d probably drawn Mrs. Henderson from the guidance department dying her panties blue or a local softball team winning the state finals. Sure, his picture would come true—it always did—but no witch would be impressed, and it wouldn’t help anyone. One more useless prophetic painting from good old Sammy.
He was so sick of waking up nude and shivering on the old wood floor in front of his easel to find some dumb painting done in a style different from his own. The prophecies were realistic to the last detail. If they were going to be useless, couldn’t they be in his style? Maybe at least he could turn them in as assignments.
Oh crap. He might as well look. He rolled up on hands and knees, head hanging, then did the yoga cat pose a couple of times to get the kinks out and managed to make it to his feet. He wobbled. Jimmy once said Sammy was constantly surprised by his own height. Must be true. He stretched his slim frame to its full six foot two and looked over his shoulder at the easel.
Wow. At least the subject matter was an improvement. The large canvas on the easel he’d stretched yesterday for a new expressionistic composition now featured a lifelike picture of a stunningly gorgeous man. Edible was the word that came to mind. Tall and lean with long, glistening brown hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. Strange, though; the guy looked really familiar. And yet Sammy knew he’d never forget that face with the high-bridged nose, deep green eyes, and perfectly carved mouth. In the picture the man was walking forward with a smile, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.
This prophecy would happen to someone somewhere, the lucky duck. Who wouldn’t want to meet this dude? Why didn’t his prophecies ever happen to Sammy?
He glanced at the clock. School. He didn’t want to be late for the first day of his new semester at the university, even if he did feel like somebody had beaten him with a stick. He took one last look at the painting. Man, gorgeous.
The hot water felt good on his back. Spending half the night on the floor was not fun but increasingly regular. Maybe he should go talk to Killian about what it all meant. But the Witch Master had his hands full trying to integrate the pureblooded witches and the half-breeds like himself.
Sammy turned to the front and let the water hit his face. What would his life have been like if he’d gone on thinking he was a human freak, not knowing he was a witch? It was amazing, the chances Killian had taken to prove that mixing human and witch blood made the children more powerful, not less. Now most of their community was made up of half-human witches. Of course, Killian was the most powerful male witch in ten generations. Sammy? Not so much. Sammy’s so-called power didn’t seem to have any significance at all, so it wasn’t fair to bother Killian about it. The predictions of his paintings were so damned mundane.
But Mr. Gorgeous over there could show up on his easel anytime.
Sammy pulled on his jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and scarfed down a hard-boiled egg to hold him until he could get coffee. His tackle box full of art supplies sat on the wooden chair by the door. He grabbed it and headed out, down the stairs of the three-story walk-up, and onto the busy street, still hot from leftover summer in New York City.
A quick three-block walk and he pushed into the coffee shop he and his friends favored.
Sammy looked toward the back booth where they usually hung out and saw Chen—nobody dared call him Marvin except his father—waving at him. Seeing that handsome face made Sammy think about last night. At least Arnold had good taste.
Sammy got into the order line, and Chen came over, carrying his coffee. “I’ve hardly seen you. How was summer?”
Sammy stepped forward as the man in front of him reached the cashier. “I worked like a crazy man. I wanted to save enough to afford the rent while I was in school.” He got to the front of the line, ordered a latte, then looked at Chen as they walked toward the pickup counter. “How was yours?”
Chen sipped his coffee. “My father had me in math tutoring all summer.”
“Hell, you’re already the best math student at Manhattan University. What more does he want?”
Chen gave a tight smile. “He wants me to be the best math student at MIT.”
“MIT? Gods, are you transferring in your senior year?”
“No. PhD. I’m supposed to go straight into an MIT doctoral program at the end of the year.” Chen’s dark eyes gazed into space.
The counter guy served up Sammy’s drink, and he grabbed it like a lifeline. Caffeine. Drug of choice. He took a sip, closed his eyes as the bitter flavor slipped down his throat, and walked out of the shop with Chen. “MIT. Is that what you want?”
“Doesn’t matter what I want. My father’s a tough witch to move. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that. What’s up?”
Sammy grinned and took another swig of latte. “Arnold asked me about you last night. He sure was disappointed when I told him you’re straight.”
Chen frowned. “I thought you were going on a date with Arnold.”
So had Sammy. “No. It was just hanging out.” He’d had a nonexistent date and a nonexistent night’s sleep. Oh yeah, the painting. “Hey, have you seen any new guys around? Really handsome. Tall with long hair.”
Chen started to laugh. “You have been out of it, haven’t you?”
Sammy stared at his friend. “What do you mean?”
“Speak of the devil.” Chen nodded down the sidewalk.
Sammy turned. Coming toward him, smiling exactly like the painting, was a guy. Mr. Gorgeous. In the painting he’d been tall and lean, but in motion his walk was like music in human form. His baggy jeans tightened over hard thighs as he moved, and they outlined a package that looked better than a birthday present to Sammy. How-dy.
The guy waved. “Hey, Sam. Hi, Chen.”
The painting guy got closer, and the wind caught the nearly shoulder-length hair and tossed it back from his perfect face. Ears! Pointed ears. Only one guy had ’em. “Alvish?” It couldn’t be. But those ears didn’t lie.
Alvish, the BFF who only two months before had been inches shorter than Sammy, now looked down on him by an inch or more. “Hi, guys. How was summer?”
Sammy knew his mouth was hanging open. “Summer, hells! What happened to you?”
Alvish shrugged, flexing his muscular shoulders. “I kind of had a growth spurt.”
That was an understatement. “I didn’t recognize you. I mean, aren’t you twenty? Who grows that much at twenty? You only came up to my chin last semester. And”—Sammy waved at the masterpiece in front of him—“and weren’t your eyes brown?”
Alvish smiled. “I know. Weird, huh?”
No damned fair. Sammy had fought his attraction to his friend every day of their acquaintance, but Alvish used to be a skinny, short guy with big, pointed ears. Hence the nickname. Now Sammy wanted to start at Alvish’s toes and lick his way to the tops of those ears in one huge orgy of oral gratification. This new Alvish was so hot Sammy held his art case in front of his crotch, trying not to spill the beans… or whatever else was inclined to spill. And this transformation was also damned strange.
Sammy started to walk toward class again. He needed to get his brush in his hand and forget everything for an hour. Alvish and Chen fell in beside him. Chen was in his class. The guy loved to paint, even if his life was planned around numbers. Alvish studied history and was Dr. Barth’s fair-haired boy. But the history building was on the way to the art department, so he hung with them.
Chen looked past Sammy toward Alvish. “So, Alvish, what did it feel like growing so fast? Even your hair grew, man.”
“It was interesting. Hey, could I ask you guys a favor? I guess I never told you. I don’t much like the name Alvin. And since I kind of grew into my ears, I thought I might change to my middle name. Would that be okay?”
Chen shrugged. “Sure. It’ll be tough to get used to, but I can try. What’s the name?”
Sammy stopped. Bloody fucking hells. Pictures of the new, improved Alvish riding his ass with what was likely his new and improved cock almost sent Sammy into an orgasm.
Alvish call-me-Ryder looked at him. “You all right?”
Sammy started to walk again. “Sure. I thought of something I need to do later.” That would be to get away from this dream walking, can’t-ever-have-him friend before he blew in his jeans.
They came up on the history building. Alvish/Ryder stopped. “So I’ll see you guys in Dr. Barth’s class, okay?”
Sammy waved. “Laters.”
Chen nodded toward Ryder and kept walking with Sammy. “Can you believe it? Man, if I didn’t know he was human, I’d think that change was downright supernatural.”
“Yeah. Me too. But if he was a witch, Killian would know. Hell, you’d know.” Sammy wouldn’t know, since he couldn’t discern a witch from a groundhog.
Chen gazed up at Sam. “How’d you know about him changing? You didn’t see him.”
“One of my paintings.”
Sammy nodded. “First time the prophecy ever applied to me. But even this prophecy was no great shakes. I would have seen Alvish—I mean Ryder—as soon as I got here anyway, so what difference did painting it make? Except to wreck a night’s sleep.”
Chen grinned. “I think it’s cool.”
“Cool and useless. I might as well be human.”
Chen grinned. “Human like Ryder? You still got a crush on him?”
Sammy walked into the big open art studio. He loved the smell of paint, turpentine, and linseed oil. He looked at Chen beside him. “Like I said, useless.”
Two hours later, after a life class where Sammy got to stare at a fat guy’s penis and realize it was the only one he’d seen in months except his own, he walked into the History of Mystical Practice class with Chen. Ryder waved from the fifth row, and they moved down the steps to join him. This was as close as any male could get to the front row, since all the young females flocked forward to sigh over the mystically beautiful Dr. Killian Barth. Even now, when all of them knew that Dr. Barth was gay and married to Dr. Blaine Genneau, they couldn’t resist mooning over him. Yep, he was that pretty.
Said professor was currently pulling some papers out of his briefcase at the front of the class, his waist-length, dark blond hair lying in a tail over his shoulder. Prancing around the long table beside the lectern, circling Dr. Barth’s motorcycle helmet like it was some kind of Druidic ceremonial stone, was a black cat. Not just a cat, of course, but the most powerful witch’s familiar on earth. Aloysius, inseparable companion of the Witch Master.
Aloysius fascinated Sammy. Knowing the beast looked like a cat but was actually so much more played with Sammy’s mind. While he hadn’t seen it himself, he’d heard reports of Aloysius screaming down the lightning from Killian’s shoulder when they defeated the head of the Witches’ Council who was trying to control the future of witchery through deceit and manipulation. Total feline scariness.
Killian stepped up to the lectern. Sammy glanced back at the rows and rows of students who had filled in behind him. Dr. Barth sure was popular.
“Good morning, and welcome to the History of Mystical Practice. Is everyone in the right place?”
One girl sighed “Oh yes,” and everyone laughed.
Killian smiled. “Please put your notebooks down, place your feet flat on the floor, rest your hands in your lap, and close your eyes.”
Sammy glanced at Ryder and Chen, who both looked as mystified as Sammy felt. Sammy closed his eyes.
Killian’s voice sounded soothing. “Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.”
Much wushing and hissing filled the room.
“And another one. Now keep your eyes closed but look upward, as if you could see the spot between your eyebrows. Stare at that spot. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to that spot.”
Light. Wow. Like somebody had turned on a bulb in Sammy’s forehead. No, more like a candle, because it felt warm. The warmth spread up through his head until it reached the top of his skull. Then it seemed to reverse and started to pour like oil down over his brain. Gods, it felt so good. Silky, sweet, soothing. He let the heat fill his head, comforting every cell. Light sparkled behind his eyes. The sparkles and the oil meshed into a blanket of iridescence that stretched on and on and on….
What? He opened his eyes, and Chen was staring at him. At the front of the class, Dr. Barth was lecturing away. What happened? He smiled at Chen. “Sorry.”
Chen whispered, “No problem. I was worried when you didn’t wake up. Did you actually go to sleep?”
Sammy shook his head. “Not exactly.” He turned his attention back toward Dr. Barth, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ryder staring at him. Sammy went to take a note. What the hells? On his notepad he’d drawn a picture of himself with Aloysius, the familiar, on his shoulder. Every detail was sketched in pencil down to the silken texture of the cat’s fur. Had he done it while he was asleep? No, he hadn’t been asleep, just… somewhere else. But maybe wherever he went was enough like sleeping that his prophetic painting had kicked in. Was this scene going to happen? Weird.
Sammy flipped the page and took notes, trying to focus on Killian, who was telling the class they would have the chance to practice many techniques in their journey through the history of mysticism. Sammy wasn’t sure what to make of the practice they’d just done. Maybe he was tired from his midnight art frenzy.
Finally the class was over. Food seemed like a good idea. He’d only had the egg and latte this morning, and last night he hadn’t eaten much of his veggie burger because he’d been nervous about impressing Arnold. What an idiot. Anyway, lunch. He was light-headed.
Sammy shoved his notepad in his backpack and stood beside Chen. Ryder waited behind him.
What? Sammy looked around, then felt pressure on his shins.
“Mrwar.” Aloysius did figure eights, rubbing his silky blackness against Sammy’s jeans.
“Hi, fella. Hey, good to see you.” That was kind of true, even though the cat made him nervous.
Aloysius jumped up on a seat. The crossed blue eyes stared up at Sammy. “Mrwar.” And in one fluid leap, the cat soared through the air and landed smack on Sammy’s shoulder. Just like in the drawing.
“Whoa.” Sammy staggered back two steps and felt Ryder’s hands settle on his shoulders. The grip was strong and warm.
Ryder laughed, but all Sammy could feel was the heat and pressure of those hands.
Ryder laughed again. “He’s licking me. His tongue is scratchy!” Sammy glanced back and saw the cat scraping his long tongue over Ryder’s fingers. There was something about the power of Aloysius’s tongue that Sammy ought to remember, but the synapses in his brain weren’t firing. The synapses in his cock, however, ran rampant. Every one of Ryder’s long fingers on his shoulders seemed to have a direct connection to Sammy’s balls.
Too soon, Ryder moved his hands. Would that they had traveled to Sammy’s butt, but no such luck. Ryder looked at Sammy. “You okay?”
Sammy cleared his throat. “Fine. Aloysius startled me.”
“Has he ever done that before?”
“Nope.” Sammy reached up tentatively and patted the cat’s head. Aloysius pushed into Sammy’s hand, and he giggled. “What do you think he wants?”
“Mr. Raphael, Mr. McMasters, Mr. Chen.” Killian stood in the aisle, leaning into their row. He was always formal in class. It suited him. Plus Ryder was human, so Killian couldn’t reveal too much familiarity. Killian smiled. “Al seems to have taken to you, Mr. Raphael.”
Alvish, now Ryder, looked up. “Al? Do you mean me, sir?”
That made Sammy’s heart do a double take. He wished Alvish had taken a liking to him.
Killian smiled. “I call Aloysius Al, but perhaps I should call him Al Number One.”
Ryder shook his head. “No, sir. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to be called Ryder. It’s my middle name.”
Killian leveled his gaze at Ryder. “A new name to go with your metamorphosis, I gather?”
Ryder nodded. “Something like that.”
Killian reached out a hand to Aloysius. “Come on, Al. We have places to go.”
The cat circled Sammy’s neck like a winter scarf and began to purr. Sammy reached up to dislodge him and got teeth, gently but firmly, placed in the pad of his thumb. “Uh, Dr. Barth….”
Killian raised one fair eyebrow. “A new regime, I see.” He looked at Al. “Are you sure, Al?”
The cat released his teeth from Sammy’s flesh and purred louder.
“All right, I’m sure he has his reasons. Enjoy your guest cat, Mr. Raphael.”
“What? But, sir… I don’t know how…. What in hells am I going to do with a cat?”
Killian laughed. “Anything he wants.”
Sammy stopped outside the coffee shop. Purring in his ear. Hmm. This wasn’t going to work. He craned his neck to the side so he could look at the cat’s silky black face. “Hey, Al, how about you stay out here while I go in with the guys?”
One side of the soft lip rose, exposing a white fang. Terrifying so close up. “O-kay. I guess we’ll get thrown out together.”
Sammy wrapped the cat tighter around him and followed Chen and Ryder into the shop. The owner waved at them with a big smile. Interesting she wasn’t yelling about “no cats in the restaurant.” He knew from Jimmy that Killian usually bespelled the cat so he wasn’t visible to humans. Sammy hadn’t done that. Didn’t know how, in fact. Good grief. Maybe Aloysius bespelled himself? Sammy looked at the cat quietly sleeping on his shoulder. He sure didn’t look like some big witchy deal.
Sammy slid into the back booth next to Chen. Ryder sat across from them. Mistake. Looking at that beautiful face was very bad for the concentration. He’d found Ryder compelling when he’d looked like a normal human. Now? Devastating.
Sammy nodded toward the empty space beside Ryder. “Sure seems strange not to have Jimmy here.”
Ryder glanced up as Mrs. Potorsky, the owner, delivered their usual—a cup of black coffee for Ryder, iced tea for Chen, and iced coffee with milk in it for Sammy. They ordered sandwiches.
Ryder smiled. “Thanks, Mrs. P.” She returned the grin and went back to the counter. He looked at Sammy and Chen. “Have you heard from Jimmy?”
Sammy nodded. “I got a couple of e-mails. He and Lavender are, uh, visiting friends in some places in Europe.” He didn’t say they were on a diplomatic mission for Killian to the old-world covens. The incident with the kinky witch Moran, who had tried to dominate Killian, had the Witch Master worried about what might be going on in Europe.
Ryder sipped his coffee. “Doesn’t Jimmy have to start his new job soon?”
Sammy nodded. “I think they’re giving him some time for a prolonged honeymoon.” Of course, Jimmy was going to work in a high-tech firm owned by a witch, so he got lots of leeway, but Sammy couldn’t tell Ryder that. Sometimes having one human in their group felt awkward, but when they’d first become friends, none of them knew they were witches. It was before the unification.
Mrs. Potorsky brought their sandwiches. Sammy dug into his tuna on wheat. As soon as Mrs. P. left, Aloysius slithered down onto the table and made a quick round of the selections. After a sniff of Sammy’s tuna and Chen’s BLT, he focused in on Ryder’s turkey and swiss. With scalpel-like precision, he grasped the edge of a piece of turkey sticking out of the bread and whipped it from between the multigrain without disturbing so much as a leaf of lettuce.
“Hey! Did you see that?” Ryder laughed. “I’ll bet he’s a master of the tablecloth trick.”
Sammy smiled. From what he heard, Aloysius was a master of any trick he wanted.
Ryder reached out as Aloysius chewed and started scratching his head. Sammy stared at those long-fingered hands. God’s balls. He wanted to stretch out his head for similar treatment.
Aloysius finished chewing and flopped over on his side, then rolled to his back, legs straight up in the air.
Chen laughed. “Now that’s what I’d call an undignified position.”
Ryder started stroking the silky fur. “Want a belly rub, boy? Jesus, will you look at those balls? This dude is hung. He must be the most popular tomcat in town.”
What was going on? Sammy felt like every stroke on the cat’s belly landed a lot closer to home. He watched Ryder’s fingers get near the cat’s balls and felt his own tingling as his cock rose slowly and steadily in his jeans. He shifted to the left, trying to get comfortable. More tingling. Good grief. He shifted again to the right.
Chen moved over to get away from him. “You okay?”
“Fine.” Sammy tried to choke down the last of his sandwich. This was crazy. The cat’s body parts seemed somehow connected straight to Sammy’s. Every stroke of Al’s black fur could have been a caress of Sammy’s nether regions. Or was the connection with Ryder? Would it have happened if Chen were doing the petting? Whatever. It was too much!
Sammy grabbed the cat from the middle of the table and got a squall for his trouble as he flipped Aloysius back onto his neck.
Ryder stared at him.
“Sorry. Just thought Mrs. Potorsky might be looking at Al.”
Aloysius licked Sammy’s neck. Gods, more torture. Finally the cat settled down and purred himself to sleep. Sammy chewed a last bite and washed it down with iced coffee. He took some deep breaths. His cock twitched, gave up hoping, and went back to sleep.
Ryder chewed what was left of his turkey sandwich. He leaned forward. “Did you guys see that new chick with the double-Ds in the front row? Those things have to be fake, don’t you think?”
Chen shook his head. “No way. She was a little chunky, so I think they’re real.”
“But they didn’t move….”
Shit. Just like that, Sammy was back in Alvish hell. The guy might have changed his name and his appearance, but he retained his 100 percent fascination with every tit in the greater New York area. Sammy sighed. How fast could he get out of here?
Yes, good excuse. He slurped the last of his coffee. “Hey, guys, I have to go to the store and get something for Aloysius to eat, or he’s going to be stuck with cold pizza tonight. I’ve only got a few minutes until my last class. See you tomorrow.”
Chen looked up. “Oh, okay. See ya.”
Ryder grinned. “See you, Sammy. See you, Al.”
Sammy picked up his check, paid at the counter, and pushed out the door into the afternoon sun. “Thanks for the excuse, Aloysius. I don’t think I could take one more tit. And I really do need to get you some food.”
He walked toward the convenience store. He’d painted a prophecy of Ryder’s arrival. So what? Like all his other prophetic paintings, it was insignificant and had nothing to do with Sammy, at least not in any way that was important. It was time to quit mooning over his friend. Ryder wanted tits, and Sammy didn’t have any. He needed to find a gay witch who liked tall, thin, nice guys. He was tired of being everybody’s pal. Sammy was on the market.