“What the hell am I supposed to do with that?”
Rhys glowered at the little black furball. It ignored him with the supreme indifference that only cats seemed to possess. A small pink tongue ran over its paw, then smoothed over sleek black fur.
“It’s not rocket science, Rhys. All she needs is a bit of food and a litter box. And you could do with the company.”
“I do not need company,” Rhys snapped. “I’m just fine on my own. Wait… litter box? I am not having cat crap stinking out my apartment.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Esme was starting to sound exasperated now. It was her usual tone around him. Of course, it might not be if she didn’t constantly insist on trying to interfere in his life. “Cats are very clean. Just scoop it out every day and it won’t smell at all.”
Rhys fixed both her and the cat with his best, ‘no chance in hell,’ stare. “It is completely irrelevant whether it smells or not because I am not keeping it. You can just take the damn thing back where you bought it from.”
“Oh, Rhys, come on. I got her from the shelter and I can’t just take her back again. Just keep her for a few days, if you really hate having her round that much then we’ll take her. The kids will no doubt be happy for another pet but you know we’re away for Christmas. And I really think you should reconsider coming with us. I don’t like you being on your own.”
Rhys gave a silent groan. Fine, lesser of two evils then.
“But how could I possibly come when I would have no one to cat-sit for me?” He asked her silkily.
Esme snorted. “I’m not even going to call you on that, as long as you take the cat.” Her voice softened. “Look, pets are good for some company – you’ve been too much on your own since Elise.”
He set his jaw. “I do not wish to discuss Elise. Just give me the damn cat.”
She handed the animal over and he eyed it gingerly. Emerald green eyes blinked up at him. He flicked at the red ribbon round its neck.
“You felt the need to wrap it up for me?” He asked wryly.
Esme smiled, tickling the animal under its chin. “It was a special Christmas thing at the shelter. ‘Tied with a red velvet bow’ they called it. All the animals had them. Isn’t it adorable?”
“Yeah, just precious.”
Esme sighed, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek. “Just give it a chance, Rhys. Please, for me.”
Damn it, he’d never been able to refuse her pleading. One of the main reasons he always got stuck in these situations.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “But just over Christmas. When you get back you can tell the kids they have a new furry plaything.”
“We’ll see.” Esme shot him that smug sister grin that said she thought she’d won. Yeah, right. Not this time. She pulled him into a quick hug. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas. Give my love to the kids – oh, and I sent their pressies over.”
Esme laughed. “I noticed. The pile gets bigger every year – you spoil them.”
Rhys shrugged. Who else was he going to spend his money on these days?
Esme kissed him again and finally left him in peace. Well, not exactly peace. He glared at the black furball. Great, just what he needed. It tilted its head and gave him a little miaow.
“Yeah, yeah. Trust me, I’m not happy about it either.”
Rhys sprawled back on the couch, trying to find anything worth watching on TV. Cheesy Christmas movie after movie. Seriously, not everyone in the world had to fucking love Christmas. What was the point in it, after all? Peace and love – yeah right. What made it worse was that last year he’d actually thought things were different. That he’d found someone to share his life with, to share the season with. Instead, she’d just been a lying bitch.
His fingers clenched on the cut glass tumbler and he tilted it back, letting the deep amber liquid slide down his throat. Fuck that. He was better off on his own anyway.
A black furry face appeared on the arm of the sofa.
“No,” he snapped. “Get off the furniture.”
Miaow. The stupid furball completely ignored him, instead jumping up to the back of the sofa and delicately stepping along it.
“No!” He repeated louder. “Get down.” He pointed at the floor.
For fuck’s sake. It was definitely a female cat. Blatantly ignoring every word he said. With a low curse, he stretched back, scooped it up and dumped it onto the floor. She sat there a moment, blinking, and then jumped straight back up again.
“No!” Rhys shouted, putting her back on the floor again. “Stay!” He wagged his finger at her.
Miaow. And straight back up again.
Fine, the stupid thing could sit there if it was so important. He sure as hell wasn’t doing this all night. Groaning he slumped back down on the sofa, taking another gulp from his glass. Great, another female driving him to drink. Must be fucking Christmas. He switched the channel to some mindless action flick and rested his head back against the sofa back. His eyes closed.
A faint vibrating started near his head and he cracked one eye open. Purring. The damn cat was purring away.
“What’re you so happy about?” He grumbled.
It was kinda soothing though. Sort of relaxing, though he’d never admit that to his sister. Nope, when she came back after Christmas that cat was out of here. He yawned. Yup, out of here.
A soft hand stroked his cheek and Rhys slowly opened his eyes. Emerald green eyes stared down at him from the most beautiful face he had ever seen. Glossy black hair hung in silken sweeps and when he managed to finally drag his eyes away from that face he gulped. Holy shit! The mystery woman was wearing a red velvet dress that clung to her lush curves like a second skin. Okay, he was dreaming. Damn good dream as well.
She bent over him, a low neckline giving him an enticing glimpse of creamy breasts. His cock twitched. A slow smile curved her mouth and all he wanted to do was capture those lips. Suck the full lower one between his teeth. Nibble lower down her white neck. She leaned closer, her lips brushing his in a light kiss that still sent heat searing through him. When she pulled back slightly though he was shocked to see sadness in those beautiful green eyes. A woman like this should never be sad. He reached out a hand to touch her cheek, her skin petal soft beneath his fingertips.
“Help me,” she whispered.
“Fuck!” Rhys sat up on the couch, spilling the last of his drink down his shirt.
A dream. It had been just a dream. The TV was stuck on some night screen so it must be later than he’d thought. He scrubbed a hand wearily over his face. God damn, he’d never dreamed in that kind of vivid detail; he could still feel her soft skin beneath his fingers, hear her smokey voice ringing in his ears. Help me, she’d said. Help her how?
Just a dream! He stumbled to his feet. A furry brush against his legs made him jump. The cat was busy wrapping itself round his legs.
“You trying to kill me, stupid cat?” He muttered.
Damn, he needed to get some proper sleep. Groaning he undressed and dropped into bed. A part of him desperately hoping to see his dream girl again.
He woke up to a cold and grey morning, after a dreamless sleep. A weight was pressing down on him. What the hell? Rhys looked down to a black furry shape curled up right on his chest. Oh hell, no.
“Oi!” He poked it with a finger.
Green eyes opened a slit to stare at him. Odd, that shade of green. Almost like… Nope, that was a ridiculous thought. He sat up, dislodging the cat who gave a little yowl of protest.
“Get down,” he ordered it. “Off the furniture and definitely off me!”
Annoying little fluffball and he really did need to get that stupid red ribbon off it. Of course, he didn’t fancy getting scratched up in the process, so maybe later.
Stretching, he got out of bed, washed, dressed, fed himself and grudgingly the cat as well, then set off for work. Last day before it closed for the holidays. If he was honest, he would have quite happily worked straight through. His staff apparently had this overwhelming need to spend it with family though, so what was he supposed to do? The day was quiet at least, mostly dealing with odds and ends that needed to be cleared up before the Christmas break. It left him too much time for day-dreaming though and he couldn’t seem to stop his thoughts drifting time and again to his dream woman of last night. By the time it was finally time to leave he was crabby and out-of-sorts, having to paste on a smile in order to wish his secretary and the rest of his team a Happy Christmas.
Eventually he was home, flinging the door open to delicate miaows and yet more furry leg tripping.
“You are definitely trying to kill me,” he muttered. “Who’s gonna feed you then, hairball?”
The cat didn’t seem to care and he grumbled as he fed it and then himself. When he was sprawled on the sofa again he allowed himself a moment of self-pity. It was Christmas Eve tomorrow. It wasn’t like he bought into the whole holiday season but damn it might be nice to have something to do other than sit round the house watching lousy TV on his own. He gave a wry snort as he gulped down some of his drink, ice-cubes tinkling.
“Never alone with a single malt, huh?”
“Oh fuck off!” He groused as the cat jumped onto the back of the sofa again. “I’d rather have the whisky, and will you get off the bloody furniture?”
He’d probably get more response from the alcohol. What he should do was get up and move the damn thing off the sofa but he was comfy and it would only jump back up again. Was there really any point? He sighed. This was probably how crazy cat ladies started out. He downed the whisky. Stupid holidays.
The silky brush of hair against his face made him open his eyes. She was bending over him and he hadn’t realised until that moment just how desperate he’d been to see her again.
“You,” he breathed.
She smiled at him. “My Rhys.”
Heat curled through him, her voice stroking down his spine and the way she claimed him going straight to his cock. Her lips brushed against his and his fingers sank into her hair, dragging her closer until she was sprawled across his lip, soft curves crushed against his chest.
“What’s your name?” Rhys managed to get out. Maybe it didn’t matter since it was a dream anyway, but somehow he needed to know. Needed to give this vision of perfection a name in his mind.
“My name is Ariana.”
It suited her. Mysterious, exotic, unlike anyone he’d ever known before. He kissed her again, hands sliding down her back, caressing her curves, over her hips, her ass, cupping the sweet globes and squeezing them against him. She whimpered, rocking herself against his already straining cock. Damn, you’d think he’d have more control over his dream cock, instead at this rate he was going to embarrass himself like he hadn’t since he was a teenager.
Ariana slid off his lap to stand in front of him. Her lips curved again as she held out a hand, helping him up off the couch and leading him unerringly to the bedroom. She turned to face him, flashing him a wicked grin before reaching behind her and slowly sliding down the zip on her dress. It slipped down her shoulders, revealing perfect breasts topped with tiny pink nipples, already puckered towards him. Rhys bit his lip on a groan. The red dress slipped further to pool at her feet, revealing long legs encased in stockings, complete with little red bows at the tops, and the teeniest pair of red velvet panties.
Rhys gulped. Hot damn! Dream imagination was really coming up trumps tonight. And why the hell was he just standing here when he could wake up any minute? Reaching out he pulled her against him, lips crushing hers, before feathering kisses down her neck, over her collarbone, then heading lower to those mouth-watering nipples. He licked a slow path around one, before suckling it into his mouth. She tasted like heaven and all he wanted was to explore every inch of her.
He supposed it made sense since he’d imagined her, but damn it was like she was made for him. His every fantasy brought to life. She responded perfectly to every touch, her body arching against him, little whimpers and moans rising up from her throat until his cock felt like it would burst out of his pants.
Her hands peeled off his clothes, fingers stroking along his chest, down his sides and brushing his thighs, before cupping his cock. Fuck.
Rhys gently pushed her back onto the bed, staring down at her laid out before him. Creamy skin, flushed cheeks and just a glimpse of glistening dampness between her legs.
“Fucking perfect,” he whispered, one hand sliding reverently up her side.
Her green eyes glowed up at him and she reached up her arms, pulling him down onto her. Groaning he covered her body with his, his cock probing at her entrance, before sliding deep in one long thrust. Dear God, he never wanted to wake up. This was perfection. This right here, inside her. No place had ever felt so right in his life. Her slick walls wrapped round him, hot and wet, and her hips arched up to meet him, sending him deeper.
Unable to help himself, he began to thrust. Deep strokes that had her moaning against him. He moved faster, stronger, sensations building within him as her head thrashed and her moans rose in volume. God, she was stunning. He bent his head, capturing her lips, and those deep green eyes stared straight into his. Fuck. It was suddenly so much more. Like she was not only claiming his body but his soul as well, and he willingly handed it over to her. One of her tiny hands reached up, cupping his cheek. Then she cried out, her back arching and core clenching around him as her orgasm rushed over her.
“Rhys!” She cried. The sound of his name on her lips enough to send him into his own release.
When he could finally move again, he managed to clean them up and tucked her against his side. Too exhausted to do anything more than appreciate the feel of her soft skin against him. One hand lazily stroked circles on her hip. Weirdly he felt like he could almost drift off to sleep. When he was already asleep, right?
“I wish this was real,” he murmured.
Ariana fixed him with those bright green eyes. “You are not dreaming, Rhys.”
“Of course I am.” He laughed. “Or are you telling me the most beautiful woman in the world just decided to break into my house and jump me?”
“You think I’m beautiful?” Her face glowed.
He blinked at her. “You’re my dream woman. Which is one of the many reasons I know I’m dreaming.”
She sighed. “This is not a dream. I fear you won’t believe me when I tell you the truth. But you must for I need your help.”
“Help with what?”
Her body stiffened against him. “I am under a curse. An evil wizard has kept me prisoner for many, many years and even now he seeks to find me again.” Her eyes pinned him, the fear in those deep emerald orbs taking his breath away. “Please, you must not let him take me.”
Rhys held her close. “I will never let anyone take you away from me.”
She smiled again, cuddling closer. He held her, gently stroking her skin, her hair, as she slowly relaxed against him. A soft noise rose up and he frowned.
“Are you purring?”
The noise stopped instantly and she raised sleepy eyes to him. “Of course not, don’t be silly.”
He grinned. She cuddled in again and within minutes the sound started again. It was kinda cute. Soothing almost and his own eyes were closing. Purring women, curses and evil wizards. Damn, he hadn’t known his imagination was anywhere near this good!
Rhys woke to the sound of purring and a smile lit up his lips. She was still here. Maybe, just maybe, by some miracle it hadn’t all been a dream. He stretched out a hand, to be met by nothing but empty sheets. A small miaow drew his attention to his chest. The little furball was curled up there again, green eyes staring right into him. Those eyes… yeah, he was fucking losing it.
“Get off me,” he muttered, sitting up and pushing the cat away.
Maybe he had been alone too much. He’d never been the fanciful type but last night had seemed so real. Maybe in the New Year he would give in to Esme’s constant nagging and let her set him up with someone. And he’d look at getting a fucking dog. That was a normal pet. One that did what it was told. He stepped into the shower almost in a daze, letting the water pour over him, washing away memories. Just a fucking dream.
He dried off in record time, dressed and forced himself to feed the whiney cat. Stupid thing wouldn’t seem to leave him alone, constantly rubbing against his legs with little chirps and miaows. Finally he gave it some cream just to shut it up, which it lapped up happily and then sat delicately washing its whiskers. There was something slightly hypnotic about the process.
He jumped when the doorbell went. Who the hell was that going to be on Christmas Eve? Esme’s flight had left last night and he knew he had no friends who would drop by unannounced. Slowly he walked to the door, flinging it open with more force than it probably needed.
The man stood there was tall, impeccably dressed in a charcoal grey suit, his jet black hair neatly combed back and sharp eyes fixing on Rhys. Strange eyes, almost black they were so dark, and definitely on the intense side.
“Can I help you?” Rhys asked. Jeez the guy better not be selling anything. It was Christmas Eve for fuck’s sake.
He nodded. “Yeah?”
The man smiled and held out his hand. “I’m so sorry to bother you at Christmas. My name is Ashburn Alcarr and I believe you may have my cat.”
Rhys took the outstretched hand, an odd reluctance running through him at the other man’s touch. “Your cat?”
“Yes, indeed. You see there was a terrible mistake and she got out of the house. The shelter picked her up, and I’m sure they thought they were doing the right thing, but they re-homed her. She is a most… precious pet and I have been quite desperate to find her again. I will, of course, reimburse you for any expenses and inconvenience suffered.”
Rhys stared at him. The man was polite to a fault, his voice rich, cultured – obviously had a bob or two. There was just something about Ashburn that set his teeth on edge. The man’s eyes sharpened.
“You do have my cat? All black, green eyes, female. Sweet little thing, though doesn’t take to strangers.”
“I guess so.” Rhys slowly stepped back, letting the man step inside.
This was what he’d wanted right – the cat gone? He couldn’t have envisioned a better scenario, even Esme couldn’t fault him for this. The cat was annoying and never did what it was told and insisted on sleeping on top of him. So, why was every bone in his body screaming out in protest?
Ashburn stepped into the house and Rhys watched as his eyes scanned the place, instantly sharpening as they settled on the little black cat. A slow smile covered his face.
“There you are, little one,” he crooned. “I’ve been searching everywhere for you.”
To his shock the cat’s back arched, ears going back and a low hiss escaping it.
“It doesn’t seem too happy to see you,” he said mildly.
The other man gave a short laugh. “Cats are strange creatures. She will be perfectly happy as soon as she is home where she belongs.”
He moved towards the cat, so fast that Rhys could almost have blinked and missed it, bending down to pick it up. The cat shrieked and claws flashed, before a black streak sped across the room and to Rhys’ shock hid behind his legs.
Ashburn stood up slowly. Blood dripped from three long scratches on his face and the look in those dark eyes was suddenly seriously scary. His gaze shot to the cat behind Rhys.
“You will give me my cat now.” He ordered, voice barely above a hiss.
Rhys could feel the tiny body pressing against his legs, shaking, and the words from his dream last night floated through his head. You must not let him take me.
“No.” He said baldly. “Even if this is your cat then it obviously doesn’t want to go with you. Now, get out of my house.”
The man drew himself up, his eyes almost seeming to glow. Weird. In fact, the shadows in the room seemed to be lengthening, stretching out until thick ribbons of darkness were creeping across the floor towards Rhys and the cat. Ashburn brought up his hands and tiny sparks of fire crackled between his fingers. And weirder. Okay, was he still dreaming?
“You will give me the cat.” Ashburn’s voice had dropped lower and was no longer sounding rich and cultured. Instead it sounded like things were crawling inside it. The flames flared higher and then Ashburn pointed a finger and a small ball of fire shot across the room straight at him. What the fuck? Rhys flung himself to the floor, the flames hitting the wall above him, leaving a nasty black scorch mark on the wall.
“That’s impossible,” he muttered to the cat, still glued to his side. She looked up at him with those big green eyes. “Ariana?” He whispered.
She miaowed and bumped her head against him. Oh, this could not be happening.
Slowly he got to his feet, facing the – well, he guessed evil wizard. Not a sentence he’d ever thought he’d have to think. And what exactly was he supposed to do against a wizard? Fire was already glowing in the man’s hands. Rhys was surprised when the man smiled at him though.
“Think about this. You’ve got involved in something you have no understanding of. Walk away now. In fact, you don’t even need to walk – just look away. I’ll take my cat and you’ll never have to see either of us ever again.”
“No!” He might be in over his head here but there was no way in hell he was never going to see Ariana again. Wizards might be real but that meant so was his dream woman. He just needed to figure out how the hell to save her.
Ashburn’s brows drew in menacingly. “Fine, on your head be it.”
Fire lanced through the air again, faster this time and Rhys barely managed to fling himself to one side in time. The smell of burnt hair tickled his nostrils. Damn, not quite the kind of haircut he’d been planning on. The cat gave a frightened little miaow, bumping him with her head, green eyes anxious.
“I’m okay,” he murmured, one hand gently resting on her head.
A low growl came from across the room.
“You will not touch her,” Ashburn hissed. “She is mine.”
“Yeah, right. Seems like she should get to make her own choice about that.”
“I will end you.” The fire rose higher than ever, the flames reflecting maniacally in Ashburn’s black eyes. He shaped it into a ball, a faint smile on his lips, his gaze fixed on Rhys.
There was nowhere to go. This was how he was going to die – saving a damn cat. In his heart though he knew it was more than that. He just wished he’d been able to do more for her. Crouching down he gently stroked the little cat’s black ears.
“I’m sorry I let you down, Ariana.” He whispered. “While he’s distracted, try and get away. I hope you find your freedom.”
A tiny miaow escaped her as she gently rubbed her cheek against his fingers.
Fine, he could do this. The door was still open, maybe he could at least give her a chance to run. He squared his shoulders and faced Ashburn, taking a step towards the wizard, trying not to flinch at the heat reaching towards him. Ashburn grinned, his hand going back as he aimed the flames towards Rhys.
“I hope it was worth it,” he cackled.
Somehow it was. Rhys waited for the flames to reach him, for death to take him. Instead, a black blur streaked past him. What the…? It looked like cat Ariana, only it was more the size of a small panther than a domestic kitty.
Ashburn screamed as the black weight landed on his chest, knocking him to the ground. The flames surrounding him flickered out.
“Help me!” He cried.
Rhys edged closer. The huge cat had a paw clamped on the wizard’s neck, one sharp claw perfectly poised over the throbbing vein there. As Rhys watched it gently pressed down harder, a thin trickle of blood appearing. A slight queasiness settled in Rhys’ stomach. Ashburn tried to turn his head. Wide, panic-filled eyes pleading with Rhys.
“Please, help me. Get her off me.”
Rhys grinned at him. “Oh, I don’t know about that. Weren’t you about to kill me and imprison her again? Doesn’t seem a lot of incentive there to help you, does there?”
“I won’t hurt you. I swear it!” The man was almost crying as the thin trickle of red seemed to get stronger.
“And what about Ariana?” Rhys snapped. Big green swivelled to him. “You planning on capturing her again? Taking her back with you? Seems like you need to give her a pretty good reason not to swipe those claws right through your throat.”
“I… I’ll leave her alone. I’ll remove her curse and never bother her again. I swear it on the Holy Host and may demons strike me down if I break my word.”
Rhys stared at him a long moment. Ashburn probably deserved to die but he didn’t want his little cat to have to be the one to kill him.
“Ariana?” He murmured softly. “It’s up to you. But he’s done now. I don’t think he’ll bother you again.”
Those green eyes narrowed and for a moment he honestly thought she might do it. Then the claws abruptly retracted and she delicately stepped off his chest, turning her back on him with a swish of her tail. Ashburn rolled over, wheezing and trying frantically to swipe at the blood dripping from his throat. Rhys, gripped his shirt, dragging him up.
“Remove her curse and then leave.” He hissed.
The look the man shot him could have cut glass. But he waved his hands towards Ariana, muttered words escaping him and floating patterns of lights drifting into the air. Ariana gasped, her back arching. Then the giant cat was gone and the woman was there.
“Ariana,” he gasped, racing over to her, gathering her into his arms.
She was shaking, blood still staining one hand, and he reached for the blanket on the sofa to wrap her in. It was then he realised Ashburn had disappeared.
“He’s gone.” He exclaimed.
Ariana nodded. “He is a coward at heart. He will not return, his vow will hold him to that.”
Relief spread over him, causing his knees to sag and he sank onto the couch, gently pulling Ariana with him.
“So, you’re free?”
The smile she shot him lit up her face and caused his heart to stutter. “I am free. Thanks to you.”
Rhys snorted. “I think you were the one who scared the crap out of him. That was one seriously scary kitty.”
She laughed, a low music that slid through him. “That is my normal animal form. Ashburn trapped me in the form of a domestic cat, siphoning my magic so that I was too weak to break away. I could only transform back to human for a short period at once.”
“When you came to me.” He grinned. “I knew my dream imagination wasn’t that good.” He paused. “Wait… your normal animal form? I thought Ashburn cursed you into being a cat.”
“He limited my form to keep me from being able to escape or to fight him. I did not think I had enough magic left in me to transform to my true cat form, but when I saw him about to kill you I knew I could not let it happen.”
Rhys stroked a hair through her silky hair, unable to believe it was all real, that she was here with him – that she wasn’t quite… human? What did that mean for them?
“So, what now?” A part of him cursed himself for asking but he needed to know. “Do you have a male cat and a whole litter of kittens you’re supposed to be getting back to?” The thought formed a hard knot in his stomach.
Ouch! Her nails scored into his shoulder, almost drawing blood, and her eyes flashed at fire at him.
“You think I would sleep with you if I had a man already? Is this the kind of behaviour that humans engage in?”
He met her furious gaze. “Some do, sadly. God knows my last ex did. But I wouldn’t, and never with you. I guess I just need to know whether you can stay or not – with me?” Tears suddenly burned. Damn, he hadn’t cried in fucking years. “I don’t want to lose you when I’ve only just found you.”
Ariana’s face softened and her hands cupped his face. “I told you, you are my Rhys. I found you, remember? If I recall you were not keen on the idea at all,” she laughed, before her expression turned serious. “It is once in a lifetime that one of my kind finds a mate. I knew you were it the moment I saw you and I will not let you go now.”
Joy washed through him, and their lips met in a kiss that swept away all the doubts and worries, leaving behind nothing but love and hope for the future. His last thought, before his brain switched off and all blood rushed to… other areas. Damn, it looked like his sister would get to say, I told you so, after all. She really had given him the best Christmas gift – tied up with a red velvet bow.