Work, work, work.
Not that anything could make Jacqui a dull boy, but hours spent stooped over his sewing table had given him a kink in his neck along a strong urge to throw aside his needle and leap out the window.
Instead he sighed dramatically, pressed his palms against the edge of the heavy table and stretched his neck, tilting his head to one side and then the other. He arched his back, slouched, arched again. Not working. He stood, padded across the hardwood floor and slid open the glass door to his tiny balcony.
He’d been working for hours and still had two jackets to finish. Zee was arriving the next day to pick up the new outfits Jacqui had created. Everything had to be perfect. And complete. Complete and perfect and amazing. Because Zee was a rising star, and when the rabble got a look at the Cat’s Eye creations adorning Zee’s nearly famous bod, Jacqui would have it made. That was the assumption, anyway. Orders would flood his inbox, gobs of money would flow into his bank account, and he could hire an assistant and stop working these dog-awful hours.
Or not. After all, what else would he do with his time if not toil?
Right now, he had a strong urge to prowl.
Now is not the time, Cat. Now is the time of toil.
He stepped out on his second-story balcony and took a deep breath of fresh, slightly salty air blowing in off the water. His studio apartment overlooked Friday Harbor, and at the cusp of sunset, both town and harbor were bathed in a pinkish glow, doing that twinkly and picturesque as all get-out thing that happened on lovely summer evenings like this.
No. The stitching had to be perfect. The lines exquisitely formed to Zee’s angular shape, the drape immaculate. The last version hadn’t been up to Jacqui’s exacting standards. He’d pulled out a day’s work in a pissy rage at himself, and now he was paying for it.
You’ll be more efficient after a prowl. And Zee’s seaplane won’t arrive until midday.
Jacqui made the mistake of looking down, letting his gaze wander across the street, to where a moving van had recently been parked.
Jacqui had a new neighbor.
Back. To. Work.
Jacqui’s new neighbor was Wyatt West, the new deputy sheriff in town. Yes, Jacqui had played around with the name in an endlessly juvenile fashion. Wild Wild West, with the broad shoulders, lean waist, and an ass to die for. Dark brown hair, amber eyes, and a crooked smile that made Jacqui’s heart do a little squeezy thing, leaving him breathless. How wild was West, Jacqui couldn’t help but wonder?
So they’d never spoken. Minor detail. Didn’t matter. Until this weekend Wyatt West of the exceptionally hot body was a live aboard, a local brand of lunatic who lived on a sailboat surrounded by fucking water. Jacqui wasn’t about to go sniffing around a mental case like that.
But now Wild Wyatt Hot Bod was Jacqui’s across-the-street-two-condos-down neighbor and required closer inspection. Because all neighbors required inspection. Because curiosity.
“Wait for it. Anticipation makes it all the more sweet.”
To hell with that. Do the change and let’s check Wild West out.
Jacqui stretched out long, ass in the air, paws out in front of him. As Cat, he was strong, fast, invincible. He could see in the dark, leap tall fences in a single bound, smell and hear every nuance of change in his neighborhood, and spy on Wyatt without getting arrested for being a creeper. Everything about being Cat was good, except for doorknobs and dogs. And the inability to sew or make anything. And the fact that ordinary cats took one look at him and freaked.
He sat on the sidewalk outside his apartment. The gin had released its hold on his brain. The crowd at Wyatt’s had long ago dispersed, and Jacqui could not sleep. At two o’clock in the morning, the street was empty of people. A possum rooted around in someone’s compost pile on the next block. Two cats were facing off in a yard behind the apartment building, still in the growling low stage. Bats zinged through the air, chasing bugs.
His ears twitched and his tail flicked back and forth across the pavement. From a long way off, he heard a bicycle. Because he had nothing else on his prowling agenda, he went toward the sound, vaguely curious to see who was peddling home in the wee hours.
He padded across the street and peeked into Wyatt’s backyard. If the tree in the corner were positioned differently, he’d totally be peeking into that bedroom window.
No. That’s just wrong.
Another reason why being a cat is better. Peeping is required. It’s a survival skill.
Jacqui peered into the dark rectangle of Wyatt’s patio door for a while, thinking back on how dangerously close to flirting they’d come. They’d flirted with flirting. He knew if he changed back into Jacqui and rapped on that door, Wyatt wouldn’t be surprised. Except for maybe the naked thing. And maybe Wyatt would think Jacqui was more than a little weird, but he wouldn’t turn him away.
Jacqui turned away. It kind of felt inevitable, this imminent collision of body parts and exchange of fluids, but it had to be carefully controlled and limited.
Okay, Wyatt, we can fuck, because we’re guys and that’s what guys do, but here are the rules:
One: No getting all up in my business.
Two: No looking at me funny when I have out loud arguments with myself.
Three: No asking me where I’ve been all night.
Four: No questioning why a guy who loves cats and volunteers at the local shelter doesn’t own a cat.
Five: No falling in love.
Six: No suggesting I see a therapist to address my fear of intimacy issues.
Seven: No prying into my life prior to two years ago.
Eight: No whining when I drop you like a hot potato for no reason whatsoever.
Nine: Who the fuck is that?
Jacqui stopped on the corner of Harrison and Oak to watch the Midnight Biker push his bike up the hill. He was a young dude Jacqui hadn’t seen before, with stringy blond hair poking out of a stocking cap. He wore a lived-in, slept-in, rolled-in-the-dirt-in dingy canvas coat and shredded jeans. He had a big pack on his back and his eyes darted this way and that, peering into people’s yards.
Suspicious? Oh, yeah.
Jacqui slipped into a convenient pool of shadows and watched the interloper trudge by.
Several desperate phone calls did not procure any dog-sitter leads. Mei Lin was off island. Rose laughed derisively at the suggestion. Mary Lou, who ran the shelter, was ferrying visiting relatives around the island and just couldn’t possibly take in an extra dog, no matter how much she really wanted to.
When Sam pulled to a stop in front of Jacqui’s apartment, Jacqui’s spirits were low. All Cat could do was emit a low moan every now and then.
“I’ve got to give the beast a bath before I let it anywhere near my stuff.”
“Can I watch?” Sam asked, grinning.
“Help? Surely you meant to ask if you could help?” Jacqui said, turning a withering glare upon him.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
Jacqui slid out of the truck and ran up the stairs to his loft apartment. He was half-tempted to lock the door, pull the drapes, and hope that Sam would give up and drive away with the dog.
He grabbed a bottle of expensive shampoo that he’d decided left his hair too dry, and a thick beach towel. Clutching these items, he looked around at his pristine upholstered furniture and shining wood floors with increasing trepidation. He set down the supplies, rummaged around for an old sheet, and threw it over the couch.
Jacqui didn’t have much in the way of old stuff. He quickly got rid of items that didn’t please him. In other words, he had little he was willing to sacrifice to the ravages of Stinky. Worst-case scenarios began to fill his mind: images of dog toenails shredding cushions, dog slobber staining silk, and so he forced himself to pick up the bath supplies and go back down the stairs.
Sam had found the hose the groundskeeper used and was playing a game of spray-Stinky-from-behind every time the poor dog turned around, which was constantly. The sight of the lumbering man-child and the soaking wet, hairy dog sent a shiver up Jacqui’s spine. He didn’t like hoses, and didn’t like the merriment with which men like Sam turned them on others.
“Put the hose down and step away,” Jacqui said in a low, hopefully menacing tone.
“What? Don’t want to get wet?” Sam asked with a grin, but when he saw the glower on Jacqui’s face, some glimmer of self-preservation stopped him in his overly playful tracks. He took his thumb off the trigger of the nozzle. “I promise I won’t spray you on purpose.”
“Not good enough. Put the hose down, Sam.” Jacqui reached for his best Clint Eastwood, steely-eyed glare.
Sam carefully lowered the hose to the ground and lifted both hands as he backed away a few steps.
“There’s the look that puts the fear into a Rottweiler.”
Stinky ran circles around Sam, barking gleefully, a sound that grated on Jacqui’s already taut nerves.
“This is not a game. This is not fun. We are going to clean that damn dog with no shenanigans. Understand?”
“No shenanigans.” Sam nodded and hung his head in fake shame.
Jacqui strode forward with confidence. Never let them see your fear.
He dropped the towel and the shampoo on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road, and picked up the hose. He took a deep breath and said, “You hold the beast. I’ll douse him.”
Jacqui raced home as if his tail were on fire.
Not so bad. Had to happen.
Left my phone, my clothes, everything behind. How will I explain it?
Jacqui tore up his street, cut through the gap between two buildings, and scrambled up the madrone tree behind his apartment. He was in the habit of leaving his bedroom window open, just in case, and now, the in case had occurred.
He squeezed in, jumped on the bed, shook himself.
What’s that smell?
Gotta be fast. Wyatt’s gonna call or come over. He’s wondering where we are right now. He’ll see the phone on the kitchen counter. Shit, he’ll come over, make sure I’m alive.
Wait. Something’s off.
No time. Shift. Now.
Jacqui was in such a rush he shifted standing on the bed. The panicky change swept over and through him so fast he toppled forward as four feet morphed into two. Most of his body landed on the mattress before momentum carried him off the side, tangled in the fluffy down comforter he loved so much.
He kicked away the blanket and jumped to his feet. How was he going to explain his disappearance this time? In a flash of genius, he grabbed his running clothes out of the closet and dressed. No time for undies or socks. His running shoes were in the downstairs closet.
He dashed down the narrow spiral staircase from his loft to the living area. It was a small studio with an open floor plan, which made it hard to miss anything out of place.
Like that smell.
Jacqui forced himself to stop moving and pay attention. Once he did, his scalp prickled and his nostrils flared. He sniffed and detected the sharp aroma of a stranger.
It’s just a cat.
Just a cat?
That stray. He snuck in here last night and peed on our stuff!
No, human, focus. He’s still here.
Jacqui focused. Took a deeper breath. Cat was correct.
The window. That stupid ruffian had discovered the open window and helped himself. Jacqui’s territory, his inner sanctum, violated by a mangy stray.
What did I tell you about establishing a defensive perimeter?
Dogs can’t climb trees. How was I to know I’d have to worry about cats?
He padded silently to his worktable in the middle of the room and turned a slow circle. He didn’t see any damage, or the cat. Gone already? But, no. The smell was too intense, even for a stinky tom.
“Here, Kitty, Kitty”, he said without much enthusiasm. “Where are you hiding?”
A rustling came from the bathroom and before Jacqui’s disbelieving eyes, the doorknob began to turn.
Every muscle tightened, and the air rippled slightly as his body prepared to shift once again. To flee or fight as required. He forced himself to keep his shape, and seized up a pair of scissors from the workbench.
The bathroom door opened and a nude man stepped out.
A nude, grinning man. “Hello,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind that I used your shower.”
Prepared only to snarl, Jacqui managed to choke out, “Mind? Of course I mind. Who the hell are you?”
“Reggie. We met last night.” The grin became stiff and the man’s nervousness seeped through his initial bravado. Man-boy. Young. Early twenties. Lanky but muscular. Big, almost buggy brown eyes. A close-cut, amateurish hair cut that might have been self-inflicted with garden shears. Toothy smile. Cute as all get out. Rough boy manner. Rough like that mangy stray—
Jacqui couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t stop clutching the scissors like a mad man.
“You okay, dude?” the man asked.
Cat man. Cat shifter. One of his people. Jacqui’s people. Here in the flesh. All the flesh.
Nude cat shifter man in my place!