Ravyn wasn't sure if he should be happy or not by his rescue. One thing was certain, he'd be a whole hell of a lot more grateful had his rescuer not put him in direct sunlight on her backseat. The painful rays forced him to cower in a corner, and cowering wasn't something he relished.
He sniffed the air. Damn. Was that his fur getting singed? Of course it was... what would make him think for one minute that it wasn't him getting burned?
Nothing was worse than to have burning hair and a heightened sense of smell. Well, maybe there was something worse-burning flesh and turning into a pile of flaming ash, which was exactly what he'd be doing if he were in human form.
Okay, on second thought, this was better, but even though he could tolerate the sun as a cat, it still hurt like a mother. He might not burst into flames like this, but if they didn't get him out of here soon, he would be blistered pretty badly.
"What's that smell?"
He ground his teeth at Susan's question. It's me, genius. He would project that thought out to her if it weren't for the fact that it would shock him and he'd been shocked enough for one day. Ravyn hissed as sunlight cut across his footpad and blistered it. He jerked his paw and tucked it up under him.
His head was throbbing and honestly, he didn't know how much longer he could maintain his form or hold back his magick. Time was running out for him.
"Is that you, Puss in Boots?"
Ravyn glared at her as she stopped for a red light. Irritation at her aside, she was rather cute in a very girl-next-door kind of way. Not a knockout by any means, but wholesomely pretty. With dark blond hair and bright blue eyes, she looked like she should be on a farm somewhere, tending a dozen or so kids. There was something about her that reminded him of a no-nonsense Mennonite woman. She wasn't wearing any makeup and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. If it were down, it'd probably fall just below her shoulders-the same length as his.
She rolled down the car windows. "Gah, what did you eat, Puss in Boots? I'm thinking I shouldn't have taken that Benadryl. A stopped-up nose would definitely improve this aromatic nightmare. Someone shoot me."
Oh, to have the ability to speak as a human right about now... Get me out of the sunlight, lady, and we'll both be a hell of a lot happier.
Ravyn tried to swallow only to learn that he couldn't because the collar was suddenly constricting his throat. His body was starting to grow again even with the ionic inhibitors of the collar that were keeping him in small-cat form. Since it wasn't his natural form and it was daylight, his body wanted to return to being human, and before much longer he would switch back whether he wanted to or not.
If he were still wearing the collar when the change came, it would kill him.
Susan jerked as she heard what seemed to be a man's voice in her head. It was followed by the cat hissing in the backseat.
"Great," she mumbled under her breath. "I'm losing my mind now. Next thing you know, I'll actually see one of Jimmy's vampires or, better yet, I'll buy into Leo's psychosis." She shook her head. "Get a grip, Sue. Your sanity's all you have left and as worthless as it is, you can't afford to let it go."
And still she had this prickly feeling on the back of her neck as if her skin were crawling. It was so disturbing. It was as if someone were staring at her, but as she looked around at the traffic, she couldn't find anyone. Completely unsettled, she closed the windows and wished that she hadn't left her gun at home this morning.
By the time she pulled into her own driveway, she half-expected something freaky to happen. She wasn't sure what that freakiness would involve-maybe her Toyota coming alive like Christine or Herbie (which begged the question, if the car could talk would it have a Japanese accent?), or her newly adopted cat talking like Morris, or even one of Jimmy's vampires waiting in her house.
"I should write fiction," she mumbled as she pulled the cage with the cat out of the backseat and slammed the car door. "Who knew I had this kind of imagination?"
Yeah, right. She really wasn't creative at all. Her feet had always been planted firmly on the ground, with her only trips into the fantastic being the occasional Star Wars movie.
As she fumbled with her keys in the front-door lock, the cat started jumping around in the box as if he were in pain. "Stop it, Puss, or I'm going to drop you."
The cat calmed instantly as if it understood her. Sneezing and miserable, Susan pushed open the door and set the carrier down just to her right before she shut and locked the door. She headed for the Kleenex, intending to keep Puss in Boots in the cage until Angie came to retrieve it, but as she blew her nose, she looked to see the cat crawling out of it.
How had the door come open?
"Hey!" she snapped. "Get back in the box!"
But the cat didn't listen.
She took a step toward it only to realize that it was acting strangely. The cat could barely walk and appeared to be choking. It fell down and rolled to its side.
Her heart stopped beating. "Oh, don't you dare die on me. Angie'll kill me. She'll never believe I didn't do something to kill you."
Wiping her nose, she crossed the room in short strides to reach for the lump of fur. Its breathing was labored and pain filled.
What on earth could be wrong with him?
It was then she realized that the cat's collar was extremely tight on its neck. Poor Puss appeared to be asphyxiating. "Okay," she said calmly. "Let's get this thing off you." She reached for the latch only to realize that it didn't have a buckle.
Susan frowned. What on earth?
"Pull at it. Hard."
It was that same deep, masculine voice in her head and it coincided with the cat hissing and squirming as if in even more pain.
"Just relax," she said soothingly as she grabbed the collar and pulled. What the hell? Maybe the weird voice knew something she didn't.
At first the collar seemed to tighten even more, causing the cat to wheeze and choke. Susan pulled at the collar with all her strength. Just when she was sure it was useless, the collar snapped in half with a foreign surge of electricity so powerful, it actually knocked her back three feet.
Cursing, she righted herself, then froze as she caught sight of the cat, which was growing on the carpet, right before her eyes. In a matter of heartbeats, it went from small house cat to full leopard size.
And still it writhed on the floor as if it were in agony.
She flinched at the man's voice in her head. Far from a coward, she moved forward... at least until all hell broke loose. Lightning shot from the ceiling and rebounded all over her room, shattering frames and breaking lightbulbs. The hair on her body stood up on ends as the air was rife with static electricity that snapped in her ears.
The leopard let out a feral snarl as it clawed at her carpet.
Unsure of what to do and unable to get to her gun since the cat was between her and the staircase, Susan took cover behind her couch as more lightning flashed and the windows rattled so badly that she wasn't even sure why they hadn't shattered. She shrieked as a bolt came dangerously close to her, making her hair stand on end in what she was sure was a truly attractive sight.
Just as she thought her house would ignite into flames from the powerful bursts, the lightning stopped abruptly. It was eerily quiet as she sat cringing with her hands over her ears. So quiet that all she could hear was the pounding of her own heart. The heaviness of her own breathing.
She half-expected the lightning to return.
But after a minute of waiting with nothing else running amok, she dared a glance over the back of the couch to discover the most incredible thing of all had happened...
Her leopard was gone and in its place was a naked man.
I have got to be dreaming... .
But if she were, wouldn't she have given herself a better house than this?
Ignoring that thought, she narrowed her eyes. The man lay unmoving on her dark green carpet. From her angle, all she could see was a well-muscled backside with a strange double bow and arrow tattoo on his left shoulder blade. Long black wavy hair was plastered against his damp body and he had the nicest naked butt she'd ever seen in real life.
Granted he looked mighty fine lying there, but then Ted Bundy hadn't been hard on the eyes, either.
Susan grabbed the closest thing she had to a weapon-her table lamp that had fallen over during the chaos-and crouched low, waiting for him to move.
He just lay there so still and quiet she wasn't even sure he was alive.
With her heart lodged firmly in her throat, she unscrewed the lamp shade and crept closer to him. "Hey?" she said sharply. "You alive?"
He didn't respond.
Preparing to run just in case he was faking, she poked him with the tip of the lamp. Okay, I've seen this movie before, she thought. Hapless moron sticks head over unconscious body to check vital signs and the bad guy opens his eyes and grabs her.
She wasn't about to fall for that. So she decided to creep around to the front of him.
Still, he didn't move. "Hey," she tried again, poking him with the lamp.
Nothing but a body so prime that it made her want to take a bite out of it to see if he tasted as good as he looked. Stop it, Sue! She had much more important things to think about than how good he looked naked.
Susan narrowed her eyes as she sat back on her heels. It was hard to get those thoughts out of her head. He had a long, lean body that was dusted with short black hairs and lean, hard muscles that let her know he would be extremely formidable while awake. He was well over six feet tall and there was something about him, even while out cold, that said he wasn't meek or mild.
A body like his wasn't something a woman came up against often. In more ways than one. He was all tanned flesh from tip to toe. But what captured her attention was the beauty of his hands. He had elegant, strong fingers and the palm of his right hand appeared to be blistered.
How absolutely odd. But that wasn't what concerned her. The fact that he was on her floor did.
Ready to whack him hard if he moved, she used the lamp to roll him over onto his back. Something that wasn't exactly easy to do, since he appeared to weigh a small ton, but eventually she had him there. His long hair completely obscured his face even though the rest of him was laid out bare to her gaze.
Feeling a teensy bit better that he hadn't made any moves to grab her, she crept closer. So close that she could finally touch that delectable skin. Susan frowned as she saw a line of awful bruising around his neck-like the cat might have had from the collar...
She wasn't sure if that comforted her or scared her. Lowering the lamp, she reached to touch the bruised area so that she could feel for his pulse. God, he had a sexy neck. The kind a woman dreamed about teasing between her teeth.
Focus, Susan, focus. This isn't about sex, this is about a naked stranger in your house.
One she wanted out of here, ASAP. And luckily his pulse was beating strongly against her fingertips.
Still, he didn't try to grab her.
Maybe he wasn't faking after all.
"Okay," she breathed. He was alive and unconscious on her floor. Where did that leave her?
Up stinky creek sans a paddle.
Sighing, she continued to stare at the bruise on his neck. He couldn't really be the cat, could he?
"Oh, don't be stupid. This so can't be happening. Not now. Not to me."
And yet it was. She couldn't deny the fact that there was a gorgeous naked man on her floor and the cat appeared to have completely vanished.
No, it had to be some kind of trick. Something like a Criss Angel stunt-he was the king of pulling off incredible illusions while millions of people watched. Never had she believed in magic of any kind and she wasn't about to buy into that crap now. She only believed in what she could see and feel.
And you could feel him right now. No one would ever know...
"Oh, get thee behind me, Id." But then it had been way too long since she'd had a naked guy around, and she'd never had one around who was quite this fine. Of course there was a really good reason for that. Most guys who looked like this weren't exactly date material. They were more the players who came and went so fast that they often left skid marks on a woman's heart and in her bedroom.
That was the last thing she needed in her life.
Returning her thoughts to her dilemma, Susan glanced to her couch, where she'd taken cover when the lightning had started-an easy trick to pull off probably. They could have rigged something to her outlets to cause the lightning and friction. Maybe that's what had thrown her back when she'd pulled the collar off-it could have been some kind of remote. Then, while she'd been distracted by the light show, this guy must have traded places with the cat.
Yeah, that was it. That made sense.
Now he was pretending to be unconscious. He had to be.
She looked up at the ceiling. "If you're filming this, I'm not amused. It'll take more than this to make me believe the cat turned into Mr. Gorgeous."
There was no response. Fine. Let them laugh. At least she got some good eye candy out of it.
Licking her dry lips, she studied him carefully. He lay as if in some kind of coma, but if he was an actor, that would be easy to fake, too. Against her better judgment, she reached out and brushed the hair from his face until she could see him.
Her breath caught. His features were chiseled and perfect. His eyebrows finely arched, his cheekbones high and covered by at least two days' worth of black whiskers. He had an almost sullen, bad-boy look to him. It was smoldering and animalistic. Magnetic. That moody, dark sexuality that made every woman pant whenever a guy like this came on the scene.
And those sensuous lips of his, completely kissable. Yeah, it was hard to be this close to him and not take advantage of it. Honestly, he was the best-looking guy she'd ever seen in the flesh.
All of a sudden, she started laughing. Deep and loud. She couldn't help herself. Good Lord, how weird was this?
Over and over, she could hear Leo's voice in her head:
It made her wonder who she should call... a doctor or a vet.
She froze as that thought triggered another. "Angie."
That was it. Angie had to have been in on this. No wonder Angie had insisted that she take the cat home in spite of her allergies. Now it all made sense. Jimmy's insanity, Leo insisting that she check into the Catman story. Angie's fake acting-nobody was that bad an actor.
Not to mention the fact that she was no longer sneezing...
Yeah, they were all playing some kind of prank on her. She was positive. And damn them for it. Like she didn't have anything better to do with her life. Well, you don't. Narrowing her eyes, she chose to ignore that irritating little voice in the back of her mind.
There for a second, they'd almost had her going.
Well, fine, two could play this game and she could play it a whole lot better than all of them combined.
Disgusted at herself for even buying into it for a second, Susan grabbed the cell phone from her pocket and called Angie's number.
There was no answer.
"Come on, babe. Pick up the phone." She called again, only to have it roll over to the voice mail. Deciding to continue her friend's game, she added a tremor of panic into her voice. "Hey, Ang. It's me. Give me a call, okay? I really need to ask you about this cat you gave me. Something really weird has happened. Give me a call as soon as you get this. Talk to you later."
Susan tucked the phone back into her pocket and glanced at the unconscious hottie as another thought went through her head...
I'm sure Catman Moron found some bimbo to shack up with and shag for the day, but dammit all. Couldn't he have called and told me that?
That would be Round Two. The girl, Dark Angel, and her blog. Leo probably had her in on this, too. Then again, Leo could very well be Dark Angel for all she knew. Anyone with an Internet connection could set up a blog page.
After all, there couldn't be more than one Catman in Seattle. I mean, really, what were the odds of there being one, never mind a whole tribe of them. Right?
So it was time to tackle that leg of the hoax. Grabbing the pink throw from her couch and tossing it over her unwelcome guest, she took her laptop off the coffee table and opened it up. It didn't take her long to boot it up and find the blog again. She quickly located the e-mail link for Dark Angel. Susan clicked on it, then sat there staring at the blank e-mail screen.
How should she even begin?
Might as well be blunt. She honestly didn't know any other way to live her life or write.
Dear Dark Angel,
I've found your missing Catman in a local animal shelter. He's currently passed out on my floor. Please respond soon and let me know what you want me to do with him as I am highly allergic and I don't have time to housebreak him.
Okay, so it read like she was on some serious medication. But what the hell? If this was real, she'd probably start needing some.
She reread the post about Dark Angel losing her boss last night. Glancing over to the man on her floor, Susan gave a wicked smile. "Well, if I lost something like you, I'd certainly want him back."
Okeydokie, she thought as she sent the e-mail off. Now it was time for her to see about securing the Catman of Seattle until she heard from either Dark Angel or Angie. Hmmm... here's where being a rock climber would have come in handy, or even a serial killer. Any kind of hobby that would've allowed her to have had some kind of rope on hand. But she didn't.
As she searched the room for something to use, her gaze fell to the collar that she'd pulled off the cat. Frowning, she went over to it and picked it up. It was the strangest thing she'd ever seen. The material felt like both metal and cloth. Truly, it was odd. And unfortunately, it was too small to use on the guy.
You do have some bungee cords in the closet... .
Would they work?
All she could do was see.
As she headed for the closet, she heard the ping from her computer, telling her that mail had arrived. Her cords forgotten, she went over to it and paused as she saw an e-mail from Dark Angel.
Clicking on it, she couldn't wait to see what the girl had to say.
Dear Psycho Susan,
You need help. Really. This isn't a game here, but let's say for argument's sake that by some long stretch of the imagination you're not lying and that you did find him. If I were you, I'd be on my knees, praying. 'Cause when he wakes up, he'll rip your heart out and laugh about it, then drink your blood and dump your body in the nearest ditch. Shapeshifters don't have a sense of humor and they can't stand to be trapped anywhere. Therefore, I'm not worried about getting him back from you. He'll come home when he's ready to.
Susan stared at the words as a feeling of anger filled her. What kind of crap was that?
They were screwing with her. They had to be.
And to think there for a minute she'd almost bought into it.
What about the lightning?
Special effects. Really, what were the odds? Out of all of Seattle, she would be the one to find the missing cat that Leo had told her to investigate...
Yeah, right. Leo and Angie were always saying that she needed to loosen up. What better way than to pay some cute guy to come play a prank on her?
"That's it, Puss," she said, aggravated at all of them. "It's time to get you out of here."
Shutting the lid for her laptop, she headed for the unconscious man. She was no more than a foot from him when one long, muscular arm shot out and swept her feet out from under her.
Two heartbeats later, she was pinned to the floor and staring up into the blackest eyes she'd ever seen.