Perfect scents, p.8
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       Perfect Scents, p.8

           Heather Karn
 
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  Chapter 7

  I was over halfway home when my nose caught the soothing aroma of mint on the breeze. His presence wasn’t surprising. After yesterday when he’d followed me home I’d wondered if he’d stick close by to watch over me. Part of me had hoped he would anyway. His scent blowing through the forest kept my heart from stopping when tree branches began snapping ahead of me. The rustle of underbrush and movement through the trees gave him away moments before he jumped onto the trail.

  He ran up the trail with me, staying well ahead so that he wouldn’t be in my way. Pushing my muscles harder, I caught up to him so that a few feet separated my bike tire from his tail. With a feline hiss, he lengthened his stride to cover more ground. It didn’t take long for him to put more space between us and for my muscles to burn. Like running, this was a good burn. It was cleansing to my emotional turmoil.

  Joy bubbled out of me in a laugh. I hadn’t felt this carefree since long before Mom had gotten sick. She and I had raced through wooded trails like this on our bikes more times than I could remember. To be doing it again, even if I was racing a tiger, was exhilarating. Kev’s minty scent road on the breeze our race created, and if I hadn’t been gasping for air, I would have sighed with enjoyment. No one should feel that way toward a smell, but after being inside a stuffy building full of boy smells and perfume, his scent was refreshing.

  “You wanna walk and talk or keep running?” I whispered between gasps, needing to appease my curiosity about how good his hearing was.

  No less than thirty feet separated us when he began to slow to a trot. His body changed as I watched and within seconds he was a human male jogging down the path. Even as a man he kept his strides long and even. My heart was racing out of control, and sweat dripped down my face with the effort I was putting forth to catch up to Kev.

  I’d almost reached him when he moved to the side of the path so I could ride up beside him. He kept pace with me until my pride took a back seat to reason and slowed us down. I was a bit hurt that Kev wasn’t even glistening with sweat or huffing and puffing from the exertion. My legs shook as I brought the bike to a stop at the top of a small hill.

  “Two questions: How are you not gasping for air like a fish out of water, and how good can you hear?” I asked after I’d rested my head on the handle bars long enough to catch my breath.

  My foot hooked on the bike as I tried to dismount. Kev’s large hands grabbed my arms and steadied me before I tipped over. After mumbling my thanks, I attempted to dismount again, this time with Kev’s hand to keep me steady on my shaky legs.

  “The answer to your first question,” Kev began after I took my hand from his, “Is that I love to run. In our animal form, it’s easier to run farther, but we still have to build our stamina. We should run together in the future, both of us as humans. I think I would like that.”

  “I think I might like that too.” Honesty was the best policy, right? It had been fun, and I’d released most of my emotional burden. It would be nice to get a good emotional cleanse every now and then. Having company while I did it wouldn’t hurt either. “And the second question? How good can you hear?”

  “Much better than you, obviously. That’s strange, though. I can’t understand how you’re a weregal, but you can’t seem to hear me until I’m so close. I’d like to test your senses sometime, but not today.”

  “Correct. Not today.”

  My stiffening muscles begged me to move, so I obeyed. The scent of the woods competed with Kev’s scent as he walked beside me. After a few steps down the trail, he took one of my bike handles and knocked my hands away so that he could push it.

  While he pushed the bike, I looked him over. He’d exchanged his black clothes for jeans and a red and black flannel shirt over a white t-shirt. However, his boots were the same. I couldn’t imagine those had been too comfortable to run in, but he’d shown no hesitation to do it.

  Birds flew in the trees around us, their songs cascading through the forest.

  “Can you hear their little heartbeats?” Kev asked me as we continued our trek down the trail.

  Besides the wind blowing through the trees and the birds singing, there wasn’t much else I heard besides the thump of our feet against the dirt trail. One bird perched in a tree above our heads, and though I listened to every sound in its direction, I couldn’t hear a heartbeat. I did smell the worm it had just eaten and the water it had bathed in, though.

  “It’s too quiet for me to hear.”

  “That’s too bad. The sound of their heartbeats together is quite beautiful. Would you like a snack?”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m hungry. I thought I’d be polite and ask if you’d like to share my food.”

  My feet stopped, and my jaw fell slack as I understood what he was saying. “You’re planning to catch a bird and share it with me?”

  Maybe it was my hands on my hips or the glare in my eyes that made him stop as well, or maybe it was that I’d stopped. His dark eyes had taken in my expression before he gave his rather hesitant answer. “Yes. Is that wrong? Do humans not share food?”

  “I don’t eat birds. Well, not songbirds anyway, and not raw either. I do like fried chicken, though.”

  “Oh.” He leaned against the bike and watched the ground. When he looked up at me, he wore a wicked smirk. “One day you’ll like raw food, and birds will be a good snack. Until then, I’ll keep my snacks to myself.”

  “Have you ever eaten fried chicken?” I asked as he began walking again. My tired leg muscles refused to give me more than a fast walk, so it took some time to match pace with him again. It still irked me that he wasn’t even sweaty, while I, on the other hand, was a drippy mess.

  “Chicken is a bird?”

  “Yeah, a large bird raised to eat. It probably tastes better than these songbirds too.”

  His eyes followed two birds flying overhead. “Maybe it would, but these are closer.”

  “Do you catch and eat them as a tiger?”

  “Most of the time. If I’m hungry, and I need to eat something, then I don’t care if I’m in my human or animal form. When I want to hunt, then I’ll shift to my animal form.”

  An image of Kev as a man eating a songbird he’d caught turned my stomach and sent a shudder down my spine. Kev noticed my reaction and chuckled quietly to himself. Yes, I was a weregal, but I hoped nothing would ever make me have to eat something like that. If I could think about something else, maybe my stomach would stop rolling.

  “So what’d you do last night?”

  “After the first older woman arrived at your home, I went to find who was watching you,” Kev admitted. “I found no evidence that someone was there. I searched for tracks, but the leaves were so thick I couldn’t find any. I also didn’t smell anyone.”

  My heartbeat quickened at the memory of the night before. “But what if it was a weregal?”

  “They’d still leave behind their scent. There are plants whose smell will mask our scent, but I didn’t smell any of those either. There wasn’t any scent there at all.”

  “I’d say that it was me creeping myself out in the woods alone, but I know I smelled someone.”

  “Just because there wasn’t a scent that I could smell doesn’t mean I don’t believe you. You smelled something, and I trust that. It may have blown away in the wind by the time I was able to return. I should have gone back when you told me someone was there.”

  “Why didn’t you?”

  A deep growl started in his chest, but it quieted as he rubbed his hand over his heart. After a moment he turned to me. His smile was devastating enough for me to ignore his growl as I almost tripped over my own feet. His scent grew more pronounced too, and I had to remind myself not to lean over the bike to sniff him.

  “I had to protect you. If there had been a second person, they could have attacked you while I was checking on the first. I needed to make sure that you were safe.”

  “You seem a bit overprotective of me. Why?


  His steps slowed as he answered. “You’re a young weregal who can’t shift yet. You need protecting.”

  “I was just fine before you came.”

  “And now I’m here. You’re special, and I’ll protect you.”

  His words were raced, and I sensed there was more that he wasn’t saying, but he’d picked up his pace again and this time I was almost running to keep up. My mind and legs rebelled, and I slowed. It had been too long since I’d had a good workout. Kev was sure giving me one today.

  “Do you believe me yet about what you are?”

  Kev looked at me as we climbed a steep hill. The black pools of his eyes filled with emotion that had my insides hopping around like a rabbit on a caffeine high. My hands began to shake, and I was unable to look away from him. When he turned his face away to steer the bike around a large rock that had fallen into the trail, I felt a release inside of me.

  “Yes, I do. That’s what I was coming to tell you yesterday.”

  “Why do you believe me?”

  “Because you were right. I do smell your scent. I smelled it the first time we met, only I didn’t realize what it was until you told me we each have a unique scent.”

  “I see,” he responded as he stopped walking and leaned toward me over the bike. “And what is my scent?”

  His dark eyes held mine, daring me to answer, just as they had when he’d told me to sniff him the other day. They begged me to come closer and breathe in his sweet smell, and my nose wanted nothing more than to run against his skin so I could inhale the scent, pure and undiluted. My sensible side fought the urge, which left me stammering.

  “Uh, you, you don’t know your own smell?”

  “I do, but I want to make sure that I’m right about you.”

  “Oh. Well, from what I smell, it’s mint.”

  He nodded to himself but didn’t say anything. His eyes continued begging me to come close and double check. If that wasn’t enough, his scent on the breeze grew stronger, more potent. After giving myself a mental head slap, I coaxed my feet to start walking again.

  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kev’s smile fade to be replaced by a momentary frown of frustration, and I could have sworn he let out a hiss as he gripped my handle bars tighter. Maybe he was upset because I’d guessed wrong, or because I hadn’t sniffed him. That was weird, but what was weirder was my reaction to the smell. Maybe one day soon I’d grow accustomed to it so that it wouldn’t affect me like it was.

  “Was I right?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then why are you upset if I got it right?”

  Kev plastered an innocent expression on his face and mixed confusion in by drawing down his eyebrows. It was fake, and though I could see right through it, I decided not to call him out on it. Not yet anyway.

  “I’m not upset,” he lied, continuing to stare at me like he wasn’t up to something when my gut told me there was more going on than what I was seeing.

  “Okay, if you say so. And humans can’t smell our scent, correct?”

  “That’s right.”

  We continued down the trail without saying anything to one another for a while. I liked the trails. They gave me more than human smells to sift through. These smells were fresh and clean, or just interesting. Anything out here was better than a garbage dumpster, and the town had quite a few of those.

  “Does it bother you that you’re a weregal?”

  I glanced over at Kev, startled by the sudden question. “Yes and no, but mostly yes. Yes because it changes everything that I ever knew about myself, or thought I knew. No one ever told me. You’d think in almost eighteen years someone would have said something about my father. I’m sure my mother knew what he was.”

  “Most definitely.”

  “And no one bothered to tell me. And the fact that I’ll change into a tiger is strange.”

  “So what doesn’t bother you about this then?”

  “It explains why I can smell everything around me. I’m not some weirdo that’s going to be locked up and studied because I can tell you how long a burger has sat in the trash can.”

  “You can do that?”

  “You can’t?”

  “No.”

  Lovely, even among weregals I was a freak. Why couldn’t I be a normal anything? First I wasn’t a normal human, and now I wasn’t a normal weregal.

  “There’s no reason to be upset.” Kev reassured, “That makes you special.”

  “You’ve called me special twice now. I don’t feel special.”

  “Well, you are, and one day I’ll explain it, and you’ll understand.”

  “Why not today?”

  “Because you aren’t ready. Now, is there anything else you’d like to talk about or questions you’d like to ask?”

  I knew what I wanted to ask before he even finished the question. “You said that there are plants that can mask a weregal’s scent. What plants?”

  His smile broadened, and his eyes gleamed with excitement. “There are plants in Fairimorr that don’t grow here, just as many plants here don’t grow there. The plants I mentioned have a strong odor to them. They are so strong that they completely cover our scent.”

  “But it can’t erase it?”

  “No, at least none that I know of.”

  “How much do you know about plants?”

  It was all about perspective. If he wasn’t too knowledgeable about them then it was possible a plant that could remove our scent existed and had been used by either another weregal or a human who knew about Fairimorr. It didn’t explain why I could smell the person and he couldn’t, but maybe my crazy ability to smell was the reason for that.

  “I know a lot. More than most weregals do.”

  “Explain,” I ordered when he didn’t elaborate on that. My motivation wanted to go on strike as we trudged up one of the steep hills on this section of the path. Determination and pride to keep pace with him and not relinquish defeat were the only things keeping my feet moving up the hill. I’d overdone the bike ride, and now I was paying for it.

  His laugh was light and melodic, just like his voice. “There are a few elderly weregals who know about plants in my pack. They’ve helped Doc, one of the few humans in my world, learn how to use them for medical uses. As they taught him, I joined them. I found it interesting, so when they were done teaching him, they continued to teach me.”

  “What about plants is that interesting?”

  “Well, there are plants that can be used for medicines, and those that can be used as poisons, and others that make great spices.”

  My nose scrunched up involuntarily. Kev mistook the reason for my expression.

  “You don’t like plants?”

  “No, I like plants. I don’t like cooking so spices and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to eat them, but not cook with them.”

  “I see.”

  “You said plants here are different? How so?”

  “There are different species here. I don’t know what they do yet, but I want to learn.”

  “I find it hard to believe you like plants.”

  “Why?”

  “You don’t seem to be the type of person who likes to study vegetation.”

  “What sort of person do I seem like?”

  My face warmed. What I really wanted to say was that with the muscles he had, he wasn’t built for studying plants. I was nowhere near brave enough to say it to his face, though. “You seem more like the fighter type.”

  “Ah. Well, I do like a good fight, but I like plants too. I believe humans call it a hobby.”

  “So if that’s your hobby, what’s your job? Or don’t weregals have jobs?”

  The spot where the trail intersected with the road was a few turns ahead when Kev slowed and eventually stopped. He chewed on his lower lip as he thought before answering.

  “We don’t have jobs like humans do, but each of us has a role to play in the pack. Unmated males track and hunt Shadows, females find mates
and have cubs, mated pairs watch over the young and train them to fight and defend the pack borders, the elderly teach. There are other jobs as well, but that’s mostly it.”

  “So you hunt what exactly?” I hadn’t quite understood what he’d called them, nor what they were.

  “Shadows.”

  “What’s a Shadow?” I had a feeling it wasn’t the same as a shadow cast by an object blocking light.

  Kev let out a low sigh as he thought. “The best description of them you would understand is a giant wolf, only they’re different. Longer fangs, all black. They’re evil. Most animals kill only for food, but they kill for fun.”

  “And you hunt them?”

  “Yes and no. We mostly track them so we’re able to warn anyone in the area to leave, and they return when the Shadows have passed. If we hunt a Shadow, it’s usually their young when food is scarce. It’s dangerous since the mothers won’t leave their young until they’re three years old. By that point, they’re four times larger than I am in tiger form. But sometimes the mother wanders off, so it’s easier to get the baby.”

  “You kill babies?” My eyes went wide with the shock I felt inside, and my jaw dropped. It snapped shut when Kev’s expression changed.

  His features had hardened the instant I’d shrieked in defense of the animals. A feline hiss escaped between his bared teeth and his hands clenched and unclenched on my handle bars. The rest of his body shook in small spasms. This time, when his eyes held me in place, it wasn’t with an unknown emotion holding me there. Nope, this time, they were boiling with rage.

  When he finally spoke, the frigidness of this voice sent a shiver through me.

  “They kill our young just to kill. They leave their bodies lying untouched except for the death wounds. Their favorite kills are our young and our females. Killing their young doesn’t make me happy, but it’s one less Shadow to threaten and kill my people. I protect my people. If Shadows hunted us for food I wouldn’t like it, but I would understand it, but they don’t. They’re monsters. That’s all.”

  My feet took a few steps back of their own accord. If I had any animal instincts, now would have been a good time for them to kick in so I knew what to do, or how to protect myself if he did end up turning on me now. Maybe this was why many of his, our, kind had been killed. They needed anger management.

  His eyes tracked my movement as they narrowed. “What is that for?”

  “You aren’t going to pounce on me and tear me apart, are you?”

  “No. Why would you think that?”

  “You look really scary and threatening right now.”

  “Oh,” was all he said as his features changed and his shoulders slumped. His face went slack as his grip on the bike loosened. The rage left his eyes to be replaced by guilt. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before he spoke again. “I would never hurt you, Joey. Never. I promise.”

  My nod of understanding was slow and hesitant. Though he’d told me that before, and he’d helped me feel safe yesterday, I was again reminded that I barely knew him.

  Kev released a long, low breath that was more groan than sigh. “I’m sorry, Joey. Please don’t be afraid of me. You can trust me.”

  “Okay.”

  I wasn’t fooling either of us, but Kev didn’t call me out on it. Instead, he put the kickstand down on the bike and walked around it toward me. His hand reached out for me when he was a few feet away, and I again took an involuntary step back. My heart thudded in my chest as he took a step, and then another. His sweet scent wrapped around me like a security blanket, and I found myself putting my hand in his still outstretched palm.

  “I haven’t been sleeping well the last few nights, which has left me a bit irritable. I shouldn’t have gotten angry with you. Come sit with me.” Though it was a statement, his eyes asked it as a question.

  My traitorous feet began moving before I could tell them not to budge. Instead, they let Kev lead us into the woods beside the trail to the trunk of a tree which looked like it had fallen down before I was born. Kev sat first to test the trunk. If it held his weight, it would hold mine.

  In the process, he took his hand away, which was a good thing since my heart was beating fast and unsteady, and it wasn’t from him scaring me. With his alluring scent and electrifying touch, my brain had already begun to forgive him for his off the handle temper tantrum.

  Once Kev was settled on the log, he reached out for my hand again so that I would join him. Instead, I ignored the offered hand and took a seat beside him.

  When Kev didn’t say anything after I sat down, I decided to break the awkward ice first.

  “How big are they?” I knew he’d know what “they” were.

  A timid smile crossed Kev’s face as he stared into the woods ahead. “The alpha can easily be three times as tall as the truck that is at your house and twice as long. He’s the biggest, but some in his group may rival him, especially his sons. The females are small. They’re just over half his size. It usually takes five weregals working together to take down a full grown female.”

  As my brain tried to comprehend what a wolf that size would look like, my sympathy for them began to wane. Fear was taking its place causing a shudder to creep down my spine. One thing was for sure: I did not want something that massive to be hunting me. Ever.

  “The other day when I told you that you were a weregal, I had wanted to ask you what humans do for fun, but I think I’d rather know what you do for fun,” Kev stated. I was more than happy that he’d interrupted my thoughts about animals the size of a city bus with razor sharp claws.

  Though I was glad not to be talking about giant wolves any longer, this subject wasn’t much better. “What I do for fun has changed in the last few years, but especially in the last few months. Honestly, it’s hard to remember what I did for fun before now. It seems like a lifetime ago. It was so different.”

  “How so?”

  I closed my eyes, picturing how life used to be. “Mom and Gerry were still alive. I preferred to hang out with my mom instead of kids my own age. We’d do a lot together. Run, ride our bikes, go camping. We even took a painting class together. That didn’t turn out well. At night we’d both sit in the living room and read our favorite books. Sometimes we’d read aloud to each other. Then Gerry, my stepdad, died.

  “Mom had to get a job, and we couldn’t afford to keep the house, so we got some crummy apartment on the other side of town. I went to a new school and got a part-time job to help pay the bills. Then all my time went to my job and homework. Mom and I still did things together, but not as much.

  “She worked nights, so I barely saw her, and then she got sick. She moved us here so she could be close to family, and so I could live with Gram and Aunt Gwen when she died. Now I’m slowly putting my life back together and learning to have fun again.”

  “Do you have any friends here?”

  “I just made a new one. She’s nice. A bit spunky, but I guess I need that. I’ve become too withdrawn from everyone.”

  “Why?” He was becoming as bad as Gram and Aunt Gwen.

  “I don’t want to get hurt again. Anyone can die at any moment, and when they do it leaves this empty void inside. It all started when Gerry was killed. It came out of nowhere, and Mom and I weren’t prepared for it. She was never the same after that. She said it was like when my real dad left. He just never came back.”

  Kev leaned back using his arms for support against the log and crossed his outstretched legs at the ankles. “You said this man, Gerry, was your stepdad. What is that?”

  “My mom married Gerry after my dad left, so he was in the ‘dad’ position of the family. And he adopted me, so then he legally was my dad.”

  With a nod, Kev leaned forward and began tugging on his full lower lip as he thought about what I’d told him. My stomach dipped as I watched him sort through the information. His finger and thumb started at the edges of his mouth and moved together, pulling the lip forward as they went. As they reached the
middle, his lip was pinched together, and released slowly. Then the process was started all over again. As his silent thoughts continued, there were moments when he’d pause tugging his lip, nod slightly, and then began tugging again.

  Not only was it the cutest thing to see a man who was also a tiger have a natural human habit, but it also accentuated his lips and made them the focus of my attention. Never in my life had a man’s mouth caused my body to react like this. Maybe it was because I was getting drunk off of his smell from sitting so close, or maybe it was just an excess of female hormones.

  My cheeks heated of their own will, and when Kev peered over at me, I had to look away. He’d had the beginnings of a grin on his face like he’d caught me doing something not so innocent.

  His scent intensified as we sat there, and my vision began to spin. Kev spoke, bringing my attention away from the weird effects that the scent was having on me.

  “Your mom chose another mate?”

  “I guess you could say that. Why do you ask?”

  “Because our kind doesn’t do that. We mate for life, and we never have a second mate. If our mate dies, then we live the rest of our lives alone. Why would she have another mate?”

  Crossing my arms, I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees. It made it easier to ignore looking at Kev during a talk about mates. “It’s a human thing, Kev. We, sorry, they, don’t have the one mate rule. People get married and divorced all the time. Some humans end up having several mates in their lifetime.”

  “Divorced?”

  “Umm. I guess you could say they unmate their mate.”

  “How is that possible?”

  “They file the paperwork and the court says they aren’t married anymore.”

  “So because your father left, your mother chose another mate?”

  Sitting straight again, I watched Kev’s face for a reaction. “I think she did it because of me. She loved Gerry, but I think in the beginning she did it because she wanted me to grow up with a dad, and Gerry was the best dad ever. I wasn’t his, but he loved me like I was. He always told me I was his little princess and Mom was his queen.”

  With another nod, Kev gave his lip another tug, and my heart began to pitter patter like it wanted to go into cardiac arrest. Yeah, I had to be having some serious hormone issues going on. That lip had sexy written all over it.

  “Human ways are drastically different than ours. I studied humans when I studied plants. Doc would teach me what he could. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about them.” He shook his head slowly as he spoke. “I was wrong, very wrong. After being here a year, I still feel as if I know nothing about them.”

  “So do you have any friends back home?”

  His smile widened as he chuckled. “Yes, I do. My two closest friends are a mated pair, Marco and Si. He and I grew up together and caused as much trouble as two cubs could. He met Si when we were about twenty. They’re closer to me than some of my family, and they accept me for who I am.”

  “And what exactly are you?”

  “A plant lover.” The grin he flashed me was a near mirror copy of my own crooked grin. My arched eyebrow sent him into a short fit of laughter. The melody of his laugh sent tingles across my skin. “Maybe I spent more than my fair share of time learning about plants and what they do instead of the job of an unmated male.”

  “You mean Shadow hunting?”

  He nodded as his smile slowly faded.

  “And why is Shadow hunting the job of an unmated male? Why not single females too?”

  His next words came out sounding like he was quoting someone, someone he didn’t truly care for. “There are more males than females. The females provide us young who are the future of our kind. It is better to lose a male than a female.”

  “That seems a bit harsh.”

  “That’s not a harsh way to look at it. This is: it’s the way we weed out the weak and leave the strong. The strong provide stronger young.”

  “You’re right; that is harsher.” Without him saying another word I could see where he was going with this. “And because you like plants your people think you’re weak and wanted you taken out of the gene pool?”

  His laugh was cold and sent unpleasant shivers over my skin. The warm tingles from moments ago were gone, as was the minty overload I’d experienced.

  “Exactly. They don’t understand how the plants can benefit us.”

  “How do they?”

  “We heal faster than humans do, but if our wounds are too extensive, we heal much slower. There is a plant which helps us to heal fast even with these wounds. There is another which kills all infection in the body. Then there are those which cover our scent. Next, are the poisons. The Moon Flower is our deadliest poisonous plant. The oil on the leaves is what is poisonous. It’s my favorite too.”

  “Because it’s deadly?”

  “No, because it’s beautiful and only blooms at night. It’s also very rare. Most of its victims die because they go to pick the flower and touch the leaves. Once the oil is on your skin, it’s too late. It kills you within thirty seconds or less. For someone your size, it would be closer to fifteen seconds.”

  And I thought poison ivy was bad.

  “Wow, that’s kind of scary.”

  “Yes, but that’s the leaves. The flower is worth the risk. It can be boiled in water to drink and used to help ease pain during the birth of a cub. We don’t have the same medicines that humans do, so we use anything to lessen the pain. There are other plants that can help with this too, but the Moon Flower is the best.”

  “I think I like your plants better than ours.”

  “I can teach you more about them if you’d like.”

  “Yeah, that would be interesting. I think I’d like that.”

  “Good. Then soon I’ll teach you about them.”

  “Okay.”

  “What about starting tomorrow? Or is that too soon? I don’t know human custom about something like this.”

  My hand covered my mouth, stifling a laugh at how cute he was now that he was flustered. His words came out faster the more he spoke, and he started talking with his hands.

  “I’m going to a movie tomorrow night with Chrissa, so I’ll be busy. Another time, though.”

  “Chrissa is your friend?”

  “Yeah. She invited me to go with her.”

  “Good.”

  As I stood and stretched, a small, niggling part of my brain wondered if he’d keep up his steady watch of me, even through my girl’s night. I gave myself a mental head slap to remind myself that he wasn’t my personal bodyguard against the boogeyman in the woods, and we’d be traveling in a car to the next decent sized town. Kev would never be able to follow me, even if he was keeping a look out, which he wouldn’t be.

  “You’re leaving?”

  Disappointment filled his ebony eyes as he stood with a frown. The setting sun played off his silky black hair so that it glimmered in the fading light. For a man who spent most of his day in tiger form, he kept his human side presentable.

  “Yeah, Gram will start to worry if I don’t get home soon.”

  “I see. Would you allow me to follow you to the road?”

  “Yeah, sure.”

  We walked back to where my bike stood in the middle of the trail, avoiding small downed branches and sticks along the way. The dry leaves crunched beneath our feet leaving a dry musky scent in the air.

  “Are you going to get yourself a snack now?” I asked him as a small flock of birds flew above our heads into the trees above.

  “Hmm, no, I’ll save those for tomorrow. I’m thinking rabbit for dinner.”

  I cast a sidelong glance at him and found him smirking. It was strikingly obvious at that moment, even if I hadn’t known, who had been the cat to deliver the fluffy rabbit to our front porch. “What about a squirrel?”

  “Too boney, and not enough meat for the work of catching them. Plus, they’re small, and I’m hungry.”

  “There
s always possums.”

  “Those giant rat things? No thanks. They taste nasty.”

  Reaching my bike, I turned to find Kev’s face scrunched up at the memory of the taste of possum. I couldn’t blame him. I knew some people ate them, but I would never be one of them.

  “Well, happy hunting. See you later, Kev.”

  He gave the briefest of nods before shifting to his other form. My ride home was less of a race, but still, I felt renewed inside. Now, if only I could make it through one more day of school, I’d be home free for a great weekend.

  After stowing my bike by the back porch, I scanned the brush that surrounded the house as I walked toward the front door. A large, orange shadow moved at the edge of the tall grass, and disappeared before I could get a good look at him, but his minty smell hung on the breeze, and as I stepped inside I took one last, deep breath before closing the door.

 
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