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 of my chest. 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 9:00 a.m. Shaky but grateful, I rolled out and did my usual pushups and sit-ups, adding an extra ten each to burn up the last dregs of adrenalin.
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’s 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.
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 was gone.
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’d 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, my head bouncing once 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 smooth-furred 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. Shape-shifters, 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 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, and 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.
When I woke next morning, Glen was already gone. He’d taken the time to wrap and refrigerate last night’s forgotten food, so I had nothing to do but scratch up something for breakfast and contemplate the necessity of some serious housecleaning in the near future. Whatever needed doing had to be done by one of us. The nearest maid service was rather far away, by design. It wouldn’t do to have a cleaning lady surprised by Glen as I had been the night before. As usual, I decided that loading the dishwasher was quite enough.
The shirt I’d been wearing last night was wadded up under the kitchen table, though I couldn’t really remember how it got there. I fished it out, unwittingly capturing a few dust bunnies in the process. The shirt was made of a washable silk, but when I shook it out, it was as I had feared. Ten neat slashes, matching the already healing marks on my chest, rendered washing it unnecessary.
I smiled as I tossed that shirt into the overfilled trash bin and hung up the new ones I’d bought the day before. Buying clothes more often was one of the consequences of life with a big, playful cat. It didn’t bother me; Glen was worth a lot more than a new shirt.
I glanced out the kitchen window. Mostly, all you could see was row upon row of trees, with only a glimpse of the Rockies and the little lake in the meadow. Our secluded thirty acre parcel and the public land beyond it gave Glen the perfect playground for his alter ego’s necessary exercise. He’d lived in town before we met – though I found that difficult to imagine. I knew he’d worked out every day, almost religiously while in human form, to keep peace with his inner cat.
Glen had been able to change safely only in his apartment or on weekend outings in wilderness areas, so he had to have plenty of control. Though I never let on or tried too hard to spoil his fun, I had no choice but to believe that most of the mischief Glen made was deliberate. Smiling, I shook my head.
Sometimes I tried to imagine what his early life must have been like. Glen said he had been as ordinary as any other boy until his body began the first changes of puberty, somewhere around ten years old. Then one night he was camping with the local scout troop and heard coyotes howl on the nearby plains.
He claimed he didn’t remember anything after that, until the next morning when he was found naked just outside the camp by a very distraught scoutmaster. His pajamas lay near the tent he’d shared with three other boys. Finding them had given everyone quite a turn, even though there was no blood on the shredded cloth.
Unlike some movie monsters, Glen’s clothes did not magically accompany him when he changed. As long as I had known him, he’d remembered to take them off first. If he didn’t, he’d have to buy clothes more often than I did.
My own differences had manifested far earlier. Even as a five-year-old, I had known unexplainable things. I had begged Miss Marsters, my favorite nanny, not to go to the movies on her day off that Thursday afternoon. And when she never returned home, I had cried and cried. I knew the car accident could have been prevented if she hadn’t left the house, if she had only listened to me.
If … Why was it that no one ever listened?
I came back to myself with the neck of the loaded trash bag twisted almost into a figure eight. I sighed. A little more stress on the thin plastic and I would have had a larger mess to clean up. Oh, well. This wasn’t the first time I’d wondered why they called such psychic peeks at the future, “gifts.”
I shook my head, took the bag outside, and stuffed it into the Miata’s trunk with the usual difficulty. I’d have to remember to drop it off at the dump on my way into town.
The phone was ringing when I got back inside. Few people had our home number. Only a friend or two ever called here, once in a while one of Glen’s business associates and… “Claire! It’s great to hear your voice, where are you?”
“Hey, lucky me, I caught you at home! We’re still in St. Louis, honey. I just thought I’d call and remind you that Roger and I will be in Denver next week… for the convention, you know… the one that happens every year?”
I smiled. She was right, I had forgotten.
Claire was my aunt, my mother’s youngest sister. At only six years my senior she had always felt more like a big sister to me than an aunt. She and her handsome husband, Roger, made their yearly pilgrimage to Denver for the Central Realtor’s Convention. Both of them were top property jockeys back home in Missouri. Claire was my only living family, and I always enjoyed her brief visits.
“Marvelous, Claire, darling. I’ll pick you up at the airport. Do you have your flight information?”
“You’ll pick us up? In that little puddle-jumper car of yours?” Claire preferred larger vehicles. Her current ride was a Hummer. “Where will we put Roger… on the roof?”
I laughed. “I’ll borrow Glen’s SUV, silly. I know how many bags you always drag along.”
Last year had been the first time Claire and Roger had met Glen, and they’d all gotten along famously. Claire had seen me with many a short-term partner over the years, male and female, but she had pulled me aside to remark that Glen seemed like something special. Good taste undoubtedly runs in our family.
“Glen? Mmm…” Claire purred. “Maybe I’ll leave Roger in Denver and take Glen back home with me.”
I laughed. “No trades, Aunty dear – even if Roger is a hunk.”
Claire’s laugh tinkled back over the phone line. “Okay for you. I’ll e-mail you the flight info. We’ll be in late Monday afternoon. It would be nice to have dinner together, if you and Glen are free.”
“We’ll be free,” I assured her. “See you then.”
I hung up, feeling happy, until I looked around at the cluttered kitchen. Then my shoulders slumped. Before Glen and I moved, Claire and Roger had always stayed in the guest room of my penthouse. There they were downtown, close to the convention center, close to everything. If they stayed out here with us, it would mean at least a forty-five minute drive each way. Certainly there were plenty of rooms, but… I shuddered, imagining what everything would look like through Claire’s eyes. The place was a mess.
I carefully shelved my latest purchase in the library, went back to the kitchen and picked up a broom with the righteous intention of evicting some of those dust bunnies, then thought better of it. Instead, I showered and dressed, got in the Miata, and headed for town. After missing dinner last night, I needed a bigger breakfast than I was willing to cook.
I felt slightly better with Eggs Benedict inside me. Claire would understand about the new house. Even when we were children, she always understood. It would be great to see her again, and Roger was good company. Denver had some excellent hotels, and staying in one of them would be no hardship for Claire and Roger. Come to think of it, why didn’t I book a room for Glen and myself as well? Then the four of us could get together for dinners and a good visit… perhaps see a play or the opera. Glen could forego his romps in the woods for one week.
I took out my cell phone and dialed the Brown Palace Hotel – only six blocks from the convention center. They had two suites available, and the concierge promised to look into theater tickets for me. I sighed, relieved. Yes, it would be fun to stay in town, back in the thick of things again. Sure, I drove in most days, but there was always that long trip home. Glen didn’t mind the commute, but I missed the late-night parties and walks on the streets of downtown after dark. There were so many beautiful places to visit and always something happening.
The server gave me a questioning look, and I realized I was grinning. I took a second to school my face before she got the wrong idea and came over to sit on my lap. Then I motioned for a coffee refill. It was only ordinary coffee, but in my upbeat mood, it tasted great. While I was thinking of it, I phoned a couple of acquaintances to let them know I’d be in town. I say acquaintances because there weren’t many people I’d call friends. I’d grown up with money, and many resented or envied that. Maybe they didn’t know that money was a poor substitute for a parent’s love.
My folks had been distant, at best, leaving their only son with a series of nannies and governesses. I was lucky to see them on holidays. I was a junior at Princeton when their private jet fell into the Atlantic. Claire had been born to Grandfather’s second wife… the one Great Grandfather did not approve of. The withdrawal of his financial support left them to live a more “normal” life. I treasured the memories of summers spent at Claire’s home, briefly enfolded by a real family.
I finished my coffee, then wandered around on the Hill for a while, rummaging in dusty cartons in the back rooms of my favorite bookstores. After, I walked uptown to enjoy the Cezanne exhibit at the art museum, generally feeling as though I had returned home after a long absence. I was surprised when my stomach demanded to be fed again.
In spite of the wonderful time I’d been having, I felt slightly guilty for not consulting, or at least informing, Glen about our new plans for next week. The logical thing would have been to phone him immediately, but it was nearing his lunch hour, and I thought maybe I could tempt his nose from the grindstone with the promise of a steak at Gallagher’s.
By the time I arrived at Glen’s building, I was even more concerned about his opinion of my hasty decision. Would he think I regretted moving, that I didn’t enjoy living with him? Of course I did miss the city, but a home in the wild places suited him better, and I could no longer imagine a life that didn’t include Glen.
I nodded to myself. Some people took their vacations in the country; he and I would stay in the city. I would make sure he knew that was all it meant to me, a vacation… a brief hiatus in our everyday lives. Perhaps, when Claire and Roger had returned home, we’d begin remodeling the new house. It would be nice to have a place of which we could be proud.
“He’s with a client.” Glen’s secretary, Esther, was fortyish but still attractive, and I gave her my usual admiring appraisal. She shook her head and smiled.
I smiled back. “I’ll wait. He doesn’t know I’m here, and I want to surprise him. You can go on to lunch if you’d like.” She fussed a bit, like a good secretary, but she knew me. I assured her I wouldn’t touch anything.
She rolled her eyes. “Just tell Mr. Chase I’ll be back in an hour.”
I spent the next few minutes looking through the magazines in Glen’s waiting room. There were some good decorating ideas in House Beautiful. Terrazzo tile in the foyer? Why not?
It was well past one when the door to Glen’s office finally opened. “Thank you so much, Mr. Chase,” a lovely contralto voice was saying.
I looked up, and my eyes went wide. The clothes were different, but there was no mistaking that face and body. It was the woman from my vision… my Aphrodite.
Her eyes… yes. I looked again. Her eyes really were violet – though by nature or contact lenses I couldn’t tell. Her hair, still done up in a complicated knot, was brown, but such a deep, dark chestnut shade that it missed being black only when compared with mine. Her lips were full, touched with a faint glaze of color. Her skin was pale as porcelain, and the haunting scent of White Shoulders perfume hung around her like an aura. Close up, her beauty was almost startling. I could think of only one comparison – the classic actress Elizabeth Taylor in her prime… and yet… not.
Beautiful isn’t like pretty. It’s not about the pleasant arrangement of soft features. This woman’s cheekbones were high and sharp, her eyes set deep in dark-painted hollows. The cords in her neck stood out sharply, and her forearms, below the elbow-length sleeves of her tailored jacket, revealed defined muscles, only lightly padded. When she turned her head, those Liz Taylor eyes cut into me with Bette Davis precision.
Then she smiled, and all bets were off. I might dissect her features one by one, but they still added up to beauty. With an effort, I dragged my eyes away to glance at Glen, who was looking back and forth between us, brows raised. She followed my look, and I was overcome by a sudden fury.
“You just had to do it, didn’t you?” I shouted. “It wasn’t enough just to ensnare me in your little web. You had to go after him too!”
Glen’s expression went from inquiring to puzzled, while the look she turned on me was pure amusement.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, Mr.…?” Her voice was honey in my ears, but it did little to ease my anger. With a challenge in her eyes, she held out a white hand, the nails painted bright crimson. I hesitated, wanting nothing more than for her to leave us alone. Then my innate good manners took over. I let her grip my hand for a few seconds, while I fought not to pull away. She was still beautiful, but that beauty had become the deadly attraction of a black widow spider.
Glen cleared his throat. “Ms. Delilah Thornton, meet my partner, Ethan Yeager.”
Her amethyst eyes widened a bit. “Your partner? Oh,” she said. “So you’re the ones.” Her glance flicked from me to Glen and back, and then she began to laugh.
Startled, I backed away and hurried across the room to Glen, still standing beside his desk. I felt as though I had swallowed an icicle, and he was my one and only source of warmth. Glen put out an arm and drew me to him.
Ms. Thornton dropped gracefully into the upholstered chair at her side, rummaged in her large bag, came up with a handkerchief, and wiped her streaming eyes. I noted that the darkness around them didn’t come off, as makeup would have. At last she drew in a long breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Suddenly, it all just struck me as funny.”
I looked at Glen, and he shrugged. She finished wiping her face and sat up straight, again looking as though she had just left a day spa.
“I’m sorry if I was rude. It’s just… well, I knew I was going to need help, I just didn’t know who would be chosen. I’ve spent so much time searching for the right people, and then suddenly… here you both are.” She spread both hands in a “ta-dah!” gesture.
“What the devil are you talking about?” I said.
She shook her head. “I’ll need time to explain, and unfortunately, I have another important appointment.”
“Good,” I said with calculated rudeness. “Mr. Chase and I were just going out…”
“… to Gallagher’s for lunch. I know.”
My eyes widened. How…?
“Mr. Chase has my contact information. Just call me when you’re ready to talk.” She stood and moved gracefully toward the door on stiletto heels.
“Talk about what?” I challenged.
“About our problem, of course,” she said, turning to fix me with those remarkable eyes. “You know.”
I felt a cold hand stir my guts.
“Just don’t wait too long,” she said, and the door closed behind her.
I stood for a moment, staring at the space she had occupied. Glen went over to a leafy plant flourishing by the window, broke off a stem, and chewed it thoughtfully. I was glad he didn’t offer me any – I’ve never cared for fresh catnip.
“What was that all about, Ethan? Why were you so angry?”
I shivered, not wanting to let my unease spill over onto Glen. “Why was she here?”
“Why? For the same reason anyone comes here, for financial advice. Why else?”
“Just a client?”
“Of course. Do you know her?”
I shivered again. “She’s the woman I told you about.”
Glen nodded slowly. “I thought that must be it. Do you know what she meant, why she would need our help?”
“I don’t know anything more than you do!” I snapped. But it wasn’t true. I didn’t know, exactly, but I felt something… a feeling I desperately wanted to deny. I couldn’t see it clearly, but something was out there, ready to pounce, ready to destroy the lives of people I loved…
I startled when Glen’s arm went around me. “Ethan, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, laying my head on his solid shoulder. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
He tilted my face up. His smile washed away most of the darkness, and I was able to breathe again. “It will be all right, love,” he said.
I almost believed him.
“I was planning to work on my client files this afternoon, but I don’t have any more appointments… and I’m hungry.” Glen smiled again. “Starving, in fact. If you really did come here to take me to lunch, I think we both deserve a good one. Gallagher’s?”
I tried to push my fears away and nodded at the man I love.
I imagine Gallagher’s steaks were up to their usual standard; Glen certainly attacked his bloody porterhouse with enthusiasm. I didn’t eat much; my filet tasted like Styrofoam. Glen didn’t mention Ms. Thornton, and neither did I, though I couldn’t get our meeting out of my mind. We chatted about trivialities until I calmed down a little and remembered to tell him about Claire’s upcoming visit. He didn’t balk at spending the week in town, just remarked that he hoped we could get tickets to The Lion King. I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but I made a note to ask at the hotel.
With our late start, and lingering over dessert and coffee, we almost stretched lunch into dinner. As the waiter departed with my debit card, Glen reached for my hand.
“It’s Friday, love. Why don’t we stay in town for a while, take a walk like we used to? I’ll drive us home tonight, and we can pick up your car later.”
I shook my head and grinned. I couldn’t help it. Glen knew what I needed better than I did.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you, sweetheart?”
The waiter, returning with our check, cleared his throat discreetly. We tried not to laugh.
It was a balmy night, the perfect time to be out on the downtown streets. Skyscrapers sparkled with light, large flower boxes and tiny pocket parks mellowed the hard shapes of concrete and steel. Happy people were everywhere. We strolled down Larimer, and I looked up at the lights in windows that used to mean home, remembering my aerial view and rooftop garden. Well, I had a much larger garden now, and someone to share it.
“Ethan?” Glen broke into my thoughts. “I got the impression that you were… somewhat attracted to the lady you told me about. That certainly didn’t seem to be the case with Ms. Thornton.”
I shook my head. “No, I didn’t feel the slightest attraction.” I stopped and looked into his eyes. “Seeing her, close up like that, and knowing she had been alone with you… it scared me… really scared me.”
“I wish I knew.” I’d been trying to make sense of my reaction since we left the restaurant. “Maybe something about her reminds me of all the things I dislike about myself, all the forebodings and dreams and visions… I don’t know. There’s something of power about her. It was all I could do to stay in the room with her, and if you hadn’t been there…” I had a sudden thought. “Were you attracted to her?”
Glen’s lips pursed behind his mustache. “No, sweetheart. I noticed she was a lovely woman, of course, but I didn’t feel anything for her in particular. Why would I?” He smiled. “I have you.”
I took his hand and squeezed it gently. “I have no idea what any of it means – my feelings, all the things she said – I want to ignore it all, but… she sounds as though she knows something. I suppose I’ll have to contact her if I want to find out what it is.” A chill walked up my spine. “I didn’t care much for her last remark.”
“About not waiting too long? How long is too long, do you suppose?”
I shrugged. “Will you come with me to talk to her?”
He smiled. “You know I will.”
It felt so good, so natural, for the two of us to be walking down the familiar streets, holding hands. As far as I was concerned, there was no one else in the world at that moment. I was almost surprised to see a man directly in our path, but his scowl made him difficult to ignore.
“Fucking queers.” The man went out of his way to bump my shoulder as he passed, hard enough that I might have stumbled into the gutter if Glen hadn’t steadied me. Then it was my turn to grab Glen’s arm. He was glaring at the man’s retreating back, eyes burning with a yellow light, mouth suddenly revealing sharp teeth.
“Glen, don’t,” I said urgently.
He shook his golden head and was all human again. He smiled. “I wouldn’t have, love. But that idiot… are you okay?”
I nodded as I watched the man walk away. Having stated his opinion, he didn’t look back.
“You scared me for a minute there.” I smiled as we continued walking.
Glen deliberately took my hand again. “If you hadn’t been along, I might at least have let him see my face.”
I suppose I looked shocked, because Glen laughed and hugged me to his side. “I wouldn’t have hurt him. Besides, would he have believed his eyes?”
I smiled, thinking… a cat-man in downtown Denver? Probably not. I shook my head, and we walked in silence for a few blocks.
I found myself remembering when I’d learned about Glen’s… abilities. The first time we made love was the day I met him, right there on the leather sofa in his office. The moment I saw him I felt something indefinable, perhaps the touch of destiny. When I shook his hand, I knew… this man was special, and I had to have him. From the intense way Glen looked at me, I was sure he felt the same.
Thankfully, I was the last client of the day, and when his secretary peeked in to say she was leaving, he’d locked the door behind her. And the rest, as they say, is history.
We saw each other every day after that, spending our nights together, sometimes at his apartment and sometimes at mine. It was maybe a week of great sex later that it happened. We’d had dinner and gone back to his place, a nice little duplex on stylish Capitol Hill. I didn’t know then that the improvements he’d made in the house included soundproofing, but I was glad of it before the night was over.
We started kissing the moment the door shut, stripped to bare skin in the living room, chased each other down the hall, and fell into Glen’s king-size bed. Many men, me included, consider anal sex too intimate for casual encounters. It shows how serious I was feeling about Glen that I had let – read, encouraged – him to fuck me a couple of times. Glen was a wonderful lover, gentle and caring, and always concerned for my pleasure. I was thinking of suggesting we try it again, when he rolled us over with me on top.
“Ethan, I want you inside me,” he said, in that sultry voice I’d grown to love.
“You sure?” Glen was always so sexually aggressive I had figured him for strictly a top. To find out he was versatile, like me, was a nice surprise. When he nodded, his eyes dilating with excitement, I reached for the lube and a condom. Everything we’d done together so far had been wonderful, and I wanted this to be good for him. I had the feeling he didn’t submit all that often. I tried to take my time making him ready, but he squirmed with impatience.
“No, Ethan, I want you now… right now!”
There was no way I was going to argue. I kissed him one more time and then started to ease into him, as slowly as he would allow. As I felt myself penetrate that first tight ring of muscle, Glen threw his head back and screamed – there is no other word for it. I was horrified and tried to pull back, thinking I had hurt him beyond bearing, but he wrapped his strong legs around my waist.
“Don’t stop,” he commanded, voice raw. His eyes found mine and there was something different about them, about the shape of his face too, but I couldn’t think well enough to understand it.
“Close your eyes,” he said, pleading now, and I did as he asked, feeling him pull me in deeper, legs tightening, his hands moving over my back. I knew something strange was happening, but I didn’t want to care, I only wanted to feel. Putting my mind on hold, I let my body have its way, thrusting hard and deep, glorying in the wild sensations, spurred on by the guttural growls rolling out of Glen’s throat.
I don’t know how long I fucked him. I only know his heat brought me off much sooner than I would have liked. As I came, I heard a gasping cry that mixed with my own, felt his body spasm, and knew that Glen was right there with me. Drained and sweating, I opened my eyes and froze in shock. I’d encountered some strange things in my life, but nothing to prepare me for this.
The body beneath me flowed with shining dark fur, thick patches on the shoulders and arms shrinking a little as I watched. The black velvet face was relaxed, eyes closed, moist pink tongue lying over a row of sharp teeth that became more human by the second. The sigh that issued from the wide mouth was almost a purr. His legs and claw-tipped fingers released me, and there was nothing left to connect us but my still-erect phallus. I didn’t move, but held breathlessly still and watched with fascination as the cat-man resumed Glen’s familiar features.
“Glen?” I said at last. His eyes opened to find me staring. I can’t imagine what my expression must have been.
“Ethan, I…” Glen turned his face away from me. “God, I’m so sorry.” He tried to pull away, but I rolled us to our sides, and he buried his face in my neck. “It shouldn’t have happened,” he whispered. “I tried so hard not to let it happen. But I feel so comfortable with you, I got so excited, I lost control… and now I’ve ruined everything.” His chest surged with a single sob. “I never wanted you to know what I am.”
“Glen, look at me.” His eyes, soft and blue and human, met mine. I hated the uncertainty and fear I saw there. Some tight emptiness inside me loosened and bloomed, and suddenly everything seemed very clear. I knew I’d been waiting a very long time for this man and this moment, and I wasn’t going to let him get away.
“It doesn’t matter, Glen. I don’t care that you’re different. I’ve never said this to anyone before, but… I love you.” And that was the beginning.
That was the only time Glen accidentally changed during sex. But once he found that his wild side didn’t frighten me, I had to watch out for his playful moods – those times I might find a panther under the covers. Glen hadn’t had all that many lovers and no long-term relationships. He’d always kept himself under tight control during sex, lest he reveal his secret. For some reason, conscious or not, he’d trusted me, and now there was no stopping him. Glen was enjoying sex as he never had before. It was wonderful.
And things weren’t as different for people like us as you might imagine. Like any couple who has just realized they are in love, we had a lot of adjusting to do, important decisions to make. While we were doing all that, Glen’s “alter ego” appeared from time to time and soon became just another fact of our lives.
I was curious about his difference, of course, but I didn’t want to push, and it was a month or so before he told me about his first change, and what happened after. Then one day we walked past a school just as the children came pouring out onto the playground. Glen watched them, his expression so odd I asked what he was thinking.
He sighed. “When I was a kid, a couple of months after the incident at scout camp, a bunch of older boys met me after school. I suppose they had heard rumors about me being found naked and all, and decided I was different enough to be fair game. Maybe they had sensed my differences before I did, as children will. They gathered around me, pushing and shoving, until we were in the trees behind the football field. Then they started in – ‘Hey, pervert, show us what you were doing without your clothes on.’
“I was so scared. I knew I couldn’t run – it would only make things worse. I tried to fight them, but I didn’t know how and there were too many. Some of the braver ones pulled off my jacket and shirt and were working on my belt. I don’t know how far it might have gone if the principal hadn’t heard the yelling and come out to investigate.”
“God, Glen. What happened?”
“The boys ran off. The principal helped me inside, called my parents. They took me to the doctor, but I only had a few bruises.”
I slipped an arm around him. “Glen, did your parents know, I mean about…?”
“The day I was sent home from scout camp, they both treated me strangely. Mom kept looking at Dad, as though he was somehow to blame. Dad just turned away. After a couple of days, everything seemed to be back to normal. I almost decided I’d imagined the whole incident. Then it happened again, a few weeks later.
“I was dreaming something frightening, a typical child’s nightmare, I suppose, and I remember wanting to run. I woke up in the backyard, naked like before, but this time my hands and feet were covered in black fur, and when I tried to call for help it came out as a growl. I’ve never been so terrified in my life.
“Dad ran outside in his pajamas and carried me back into the house. I held on to him so tightly I left claw marks in his shoulder. He didn’t seem very surprised at how I looked.”
I’d met Glen’s parents only once. They lived on the other side of the Rockies, in a small town near Grand Junction. They were polite to me, but only just, and not much warmer to Glen. I got the feeling that having a son who was not only a shape-shifter, but a gay shape-shifter, was a little too much for them.
“Was your father…?”
“No. I guess it sometimes skips a generation. The day after the incident at school, they drove me up to Grandpa’s. Grandma had been gone for years, and the old man lived all alone on a few acres in the mountains, sold vegetables in the summer and raised sheep for meat and wool. Grandpa was the one to tell me about what I was becoming, and how it had begun for him when he was about my age. I asked him ‘why,’ but he said it was just something the men in our family had to put up with.
“I stayed with Grandpa for almost a year, working with him on his farm and hunting with him in the woods on all fours until I learned to control the change.”
Glen later told me that he didn’t especially enjoy hunting as a man, but that it seemed perfectly natural when he was in cat form.
“Of course, I always wondered why our family was so different. Grandpa had photo albums and records that went back a hundred years, but there was never a mention of the change. I tried to research it, first in libraries and later online, but could never find any real information. I suppose that people like me, if there are others, wouldn’t exactly form clubs or anything… not even on the Internet.”
I’d tried to help Glen with his search, but the people who claimed belief were often obviously unbalanced, without Glen’s practical acceptance and relative normality. No one I contacted had any real information to offer, and even books spoke mostly of legend, myth, and fairy-tale monsters.
A surprisingly chill breeze blew in our faces. I spotted a wrought iron bench in front of a closed shop and pulled Glen down beside me.
“Glen, what happened to your grandfather?”
If my question surprised him, he didn’t show it. “He died last year, just before I met you.” Glen leaned back on the bench, stretching his arms over his head. “I still miss him, Ethan. He was the only person in the world around whom I could really be myself.” He sat up and turned to smile at me. “Until I met you.” I smiled back.
“You know,” he went on, “I suppose it would have been easier in some ways, just to stay with Grandpa, become like him… a hermit, always alone.” Glen’s smile grew warm. “But there were so many things I wanted to do.”
He cupped my cheek in one strong palm and kissed me. I was dimly aware that a female/male couple walked by, but their pace never slowed. Perhaps they didn’t see us, or perhaps they were happy enough in their own relationship to allow us joy in ours.
…to be continued
© 2014 Brian Holliday. All rights reserved.