The late-April night was unseasonably warm, so I'd left the window open a couple inches. Just enough for a breath of fresh air to pass through. From the bed, I gazed up at the moon, which glittered a quarter past full. A low bank of clouds-illuminated silhouettes against the sky-rolled through, streaking the moon with their long fingers of ink. I slid out from between the sheets and silently crossed to the window, padding softly over the braided rug that Iris had recently found in a little vintage store.
Lifting the window just enough so I could lean my head out, I peered into the shadows of the backyard. My sister Camille was out for the night. She was staying with her husbands, Morio and Smoky-a fox demon and a dragon, respectively-in the woods near Smoky's barrow. They were casting yet another spell to bring home one of our own. Trillian, Camille's alpha lover, was still missing. We knew he was alive, but that's all we knew. He'd disappeared, and from all accounts, a goblin contingent nabbed him back in Otherworld, which spelled potential disaster . . . for both Trillian and for us.
Menolly, my other sister, should be just getting home from work. She ran the Wayfarer Bar & Grill. The driveway wasn't visible from my window, so I couldn't see whether her Jag was parked there.
I turned back to the bed. Chase had decided to stay the night, and he was sprawled out across the mattress, sound asleep, cover thrown to the side. The man was hot-blooded, which made him very amenable during the nights when I yanked all the blankets away and curled up in them, leaving him naked. Speaking of naked, I thought. Chase was obviously enjoying whatever dream he was having. Either that or he was dreaming he was a sundial. I licked my lips. Time to wake him up in a very special way. If I was careful . . .
I slowly climbed back on the bed and leaned down to cautiously trace my tongue along the length of his erection.
"Erika?" he muttered.
I frowned and paused, tongue still poised against his skin. Who the hell was Erika?
"Delilah, come quick!"
The door slammed open. I lurched, Chase jumped, and my fangs scratched an inch-long razor-thin gash, leaving a delicate red line as a few drops of blood oozed out. Oh shit!
"What the fuck are you doing?" Chase yelled, his voice unnaturally high as he scrambled away. The expression on his face was not the one I'd been going for, that was for sure.
"Chase! I'm sorry-"
"Oh, Christ!" His foot got caught in the quilt, and he went tumbling over the side of the bed. He hit the floor with a thud, swearing a blue streak.
I rushed to his side as Menolly snorted from where she stood by the door, wreathed in light from the hallway. Blood burbled out of her nose and dripped down to her lips.
"Can you maybe remember to knock next time?" I stared at her, shaking my head. "I take it you just had dinner?"
She coughed, and I caught the glint in her eye. It went against every instinct I had, but I managed to repress my own laughter. I felt bad for Chase-especially since I'd been the one to inflict pain on him-but I felt like Lucy Ricardo caught in the middle of one of her harebrained schemes.
I didn't dare let him see me smile, though. My detective had been going through a rough spot the past few days, and his sense of humor had taken a hike. His job-or rather, jobs-were driving him nuts.
Not to mention that Zachary Lyonnesse-a werepuma with whom I'd slept one time and who was constantly trying to woo me away-had been hanging around the house more. His visits had increased since he got wind that, for the past month or so, Chase had been too busy to drop over most nights. Zachary hadn't put any pressure on me, but I could sense the tension that still ran between us. We tried to pretend it wasn't there-or at least I did-but it was hard to ignore the chemistry, even though Chase was the one who held my heart.
Chase had been irritated, that much I knew, but he'd been smart enough to steer clear of pushing an ultimatum on me. And that was a good thing, because I genuinely liked Zach, and we had to work together as we formed the foundation for the growing Supe Community.
I reminded Chase time and again that I loved him and wouldn't stray without talking to him first. But the fact that we'd only managed to have sex four times in the past six weeks didn't help. We were both pent-up, frustrated, and feeling out of sync.
Menolly delicately stepped over the pile of clothes that had grown in the middle of the room. I wasn't much on laundry baskets, even though Iris kept bitching at me. I know, I know, being a werecat, I should be fastidious and tidy, but it just wasn't going to happen. I always meant to do better, but the truth was that I was a slob, and no matter how hard I tried, I'd always be one.
As she plucked a tissue from the box on my dresser and patted her nose, Menolly's gaze flickered back to us. Her pale blue eyes-almost gray, really-grew luminous in the dim light as she stared unabashedly at Chase. The tip of her tongue reach out to trace her lips.
I was about to give her a good what for when I realized it wasn't his nether regions she was focused on. Nope. She could smell his blood. Menolly was a vampire, and while she did a good job of keeping herself in check, when she was startled, her steel-clad grip on her emotions could slip a little.
Chase noticed her intensified scrutiny at the same time I did. "Stop right where you are!" He hurried to pull the sheet over his groin. "If you think you're sticking your fangs in my . . . anywhere in me, you've got another think coming!"
She reined herself in. "Sorry, didn't mean to stare. Just . . ."
"Menolly . . . remember where you are," I said, slowly standing.
She glanced at me, then back at Chase, and shook her head. "Really, I didn't intend to be rude. You okay, Chase?" Without waiting for an answer, she whirled back to me, and a goofy grin spread across her face. "You need to come downstairs, or you'll miss everything!"
"Miss what?" I scrambled for my sleep shirt and dragged it over my head. "What's going on? Do I need to get dressed? Are there demons in the yard? A goblin brigade marching through our kitchen? Another unicorn visit?" Knowing our luck, it could be multiple choice: Take your pick, any and all. Or something worse.
"No, no brawls tonight." She clapped her hands. "I just got home. Iris is up. Maggie said her first words, and she's awake and babbling up a storm. Most of it's nonsense still, but she really can say a few things! Iris is recording it on the camcorder. So hurry up and get your ass downstairs."
As she shut the door, Chase pushed himself to his feet. He fumbled for a moment, then sat on the edge of the bed, staring at his penis. The blood had stopped, but the thin red wheal left a reminder of where my left fang had lacerated him.
I winced as I rooted around in the pile of clothes, looking for my slippers
. "That's gotta hurt."
Chase glared at me. "You think? Ever decide maybe you should warn a guy first? We already tried that maneuver before, and I've got the scars to prove it, thank you very much." He sighed. "I'm okay with forgoing blow jobs, you know that. So Delilah, honey, what on earth gave you the idea to try it again?" He gingerly examined his wounded pride, shaking his head.
I let out a little growl. "You don't have to act so pissy. I wasn't planning on giving you a blow job. I was just teasing you awake so we could have a little late-night fun. Everything would have been okay if Menolly hadn't come in. Great gods, we've barely touched each other-" One look at his face, and I stopped that train of thought. Best not to go there right now.
"I said I'm sorry. Let me get the antibiotic ointment." I stalked into my bathroom, which was right off the bedroom, and brought back a tube of unguent. He relented and let me slide a thin layer down his skin.
As I gazed into his eyes, he leaned forward and kissed me. Slow, deep, with tenderness. I was tempted to catch Maggie's first words on the morning rerun. Maybe we could get in some hot sex without hurting him any further. But then Chase abruptly pulled away.
"Come on, let's get dressed." He slid into a pair of burgundy boxer shorts and the velvet robe he kept in my room. "This is about the only good news we've had in a while. We don't want to miss it."
As I found my slippers and slid them on, he headed out the door, and I scurried to catch up. Chase adored Maggie, that I knew. But for him to forgo sex for something like this . . . there had to be something going on. And whatever it was, he obviously wasn't letting me in on the secret.
Iris had the camcorder in hand, while Menolly knelt beside Maggie. Menolly had taken our baby calico gargoyle under her wing and played substitute mama as much as possible. We all loved the little twerp, but a special bond had grown between the vampire and the gargoyle. Maybe because they were both out of their element-both adrift, thanks to the demonic envoys that walked the world.
Maggie looked a lot like a cross between an imp and a large cat. Short, downy, calico-colored fur covered her body. She had pointed ears and whiskers, but her wings were still far too small to support her, so she couldn't fly yet.
The baby 'goyle could barely walk, actually. She'd taken her first steps a few months before. Maggie had a long tail, with a devil's tip at the end, and it, too, was covered with fur. With Menolly's help, she'd gotten the hang of using her tail to balance herself. Now she could stand for several minutes without leaning against the coffee table and even walk a few steps, but after that things got shaky, and her wings would flail, and she'd land on her butt. She never hurt herself when she fell, but her bewildered little moophs always managed to get her a treat of some roast beef or a little more of her cream drink.
Maggie gazed up at me with yellow topaz eyes as I knelt in front of her. Would she speak in English? The Fae dialect we often used among ourselves? Or something else?
I glanced up at Iris. "Well?"
Iris, a Talon-haltija who lived with us, shook her head. "She's taking a break, I think. I swear, the moment she said one word, she opened up like the clouds, and she's been babbling on ever since. I wasn't sure whether to disturb you, so I waited till Menolly arrived home." She lifted the camera again and zoomed in on Maggie as I reached for her.
Maggie shook her head at me. "No!"
Surprised, I sat back, waiting.
"No sit. No sit. Deeyaya no sit on me."
I stifled a laugh. Maggie had already proved extremely sensitive to anything remotely decipherable as ridicule. "I think she's got that backward, but she's definitely talking. That's for sure."
Menolly perched on the edge of the coffee table. "Yeah, and she knows all our names. When I walked in, she called me Menny."
"Menny!" Maggie looked extremely proud of herself. "Menny, Deeyaya, Camey? Where Camey?" She glanced around, a confused look on her face.
"Camille will be back in a while," Menolly said, slipping her hands under Maggie's arms as she lifted her onto her lap. "Who's that?" She pointed to Chase. Chase had spent a number of hours babysitting Maggie.
Maggie giggled and clapped. "He-man! He-man!"
I looked over at Chase. "What the . . . is she trying to say human?"
Chase blushed red, right to the tips of his ears. "I don't think so."
"Then why is . . . oh good gods, did you teach her that your name is He-Man?" I snorted as he rolled his eyes.
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." He appealed to Iris for help, but she just pressed her lips together in a winsome grin. "I didn't think she'd remember it," he said, "let alone repeat it."
Menolly arched an eyebrow. "We found out your secret, Johnson. You want to play superhero. At least we know she's developing along normal lines . . . I guess. The demons may have treated her like livestock, but she can grasp basic concepts-" She paused as a crash echoed from out back. Then again, the echo of something breaking, closer to the house.
"Delilah, come with me. Chase, Iris, wait here." Without another word, Menolly handed Maggie to Iris and slipped out of the living room.
I followed her to the kitchen. She held her finger to her lips and eased the back door open. Silently, thanks to my catlike nature, I tiptoed out behind her. We paused on the porch. There it was again: another thud and the sound of breaking tree limbs.
Tapping Menolly on the shoulder, I motioned for her to step back. As she did, I focused on my core, my center where all facets of my essence fused into one, then split apart again.
The world began to fold, the shadows deepened into gray scale, as I spiraled into myself. Limbs and torso melding, blending, breaking apart to re-form. The metamorphosis never hurt, though nobody believed me when I told them. At least, it didn't hurt as long as I shifted slowly and smoothly.
Hands and feet to paws, torso shrinking, spine lengthening, all was a whirl of change and transformation. I rolled my head back, luxuriating in the feel of the magic as the waves rolled through my body, claiming me into a different form.
A whiff of mist, the scent of bonfires in the distance, but now was not the time for Panther. The Autumn Lord, my master, was still and silent. No, now was the time for Tabby to emerge. As my golden fur quivered in the wind, I flicked my tail and blinked, then raced out through the cat door.
In cat form, I could go exploring without drawing too much attention to myself. Whoever was playing havoc in the woods that lay boundary to our land didn't need to know we were onto them, and chances were they wouldn't notice me in my cat form.