Copyright © 2013 N.J. Walters
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“This isn’t real.” Araminta sat back on the bed with a heavy thump, her hands twisted in the sheet covering her. She was losing her mind. There was no other logical explanation for what was happening. The lion was massive, much larger than a normal one. He looked as though he could eat her with one gulp.
He prowled toward her and she held out her shaking hand. “Nice kitty.” She should call hotel security. But what would she say? I have a lion in my room. They’d send for the men in white coats. She tried to swallow around the lump in her throat but couldn’t. The lion stopped in front of her, his face level with hers.
She could hear his heavy breathing, feel the warm puff against her skin. His teeth appeared even sharper this close up. His long golden tail with a black tuft on the end swished lazily behind him.
“I must be going crazy.” The words came out in a breathy rush, and she sucked in a lungful of air. Her heart raced and her stomach was in knots.
There was no other explanation for having a sexy stranger in her bed, one who could shift into a lion. “I’ve been doing too much research and writing. Maybe I’ve had a mental breakdown.” The words tripped out, one after another. She always talked to herself when she was nervous, and the fact she was on the verge of being eaten by a large lion was no reason to stop. In a weird way, it calmed and grounded her.
The lion grumbled and caught the edge of her sheet between its teeth. She clung to the thin fabric, refusing to let her only covering go. “Hey, let go. That’s mine.” And why was she arguing with a full-grown male lion? She’d truly lost her mind.
Leander growled again, but this time he sounded as though he meant business. The fabric ripped and she released it, afraid he might decide to chomp on her next if she didn’t. She pushed herself back onto the bed, but he caught her forearm in his powerful jaws. He didn’t hurt her, his teeth touching her skin but not digging in. She froze, afraid to do anything that might upset him further.
Oh God, what was she going to do? Nothing in her past had prepared her for such an event. She wasn’t an adrenaline junkie, a thrill-seeker. She was a homebody, living a staid, quiet life.
When she stopped trying to escape him, he released her and dragged his tongue over her arm as if in silent apology.
“This is unbelievable.”
He growled and shook his head as if to refute her words.
She licked her dry lips and tried to think logically. He hadn’t eaten her, hadn’t even done anything to harm her. That probably meant he wasn’t going to. Or at least that’s what she hoped it meant.
Tentatively, she reached out and touched his head. He gave a low purr of encouragement and she carefully scratched behind one of his ears. His fur was short and bristly and felt a lot like Percy’s.
“Okay, what if I agree that you are a shapeshifter and an ancient immortal warrior?” He gave a rumble of approval and she kept going. “What does that mean? And why am I suddenly living my book?” That was the weirdest thing of all. If he was real, did the people from the two books she’d already written exist? It was all very confusing. Could a dream be this real? She didn’t think so.
He suddenly pulled away from her and began to change again, this time going from animal to man. Skin replaced fur and hands and feet appeared, but the heavy muscle remained constant. The fur around his face receded until only his incredible hair hung to his shoulders. The tail seemed to be absorbed by his body.
She grabbed for the slightly tattered sheet, but he yanked it out of her grasp. Leander leaned over her, his knees on the floor in front of her, his hands pressed against the mattress on either side of her hips, effectively caging her in. He was so tall he was looking in her eyes even though he was kneeling on the floor and she was seated on the bed.
“You are the special woman who has broken my curse. Five of my brethren have been freed already. Mordecai, the serpent, joined Hades without a fight after slaying the woman who freed him. Phoenix and Stavros, the jaguar, disappeared with their women, never to be heard from again.” He paused and she felt his pain like it was a living, breathing entity. “Roric and Marko, the tiger and the bear, have found their freedom, and now it is my turn to do the same.”
Araminta wanted to touch him but was half-afraid to now that she knew he was more than a dream. “I don’t understand. Why did I dream about them? Why am I writing books about them?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe it is a gift from the Lady. Maybe it is part of Hades’ plan.”
The mere thought that Hades might have been in her dreams gave Araminta the heebie-jeebies, and a shiver raced down her spine. If she believed that Leander was the real deal, Hades was also real.
“Please tell me you drugged me.” She was on the verge of hysterical laughter. This couldn’t be happening to her. She was a former librarian turned writer, for heaven’s sake. Not some sexy female adventurer from some movie or video game.
She reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Tell me you drugged me. Tell me none of this is real.”
He shook his head and sadness filled his gaze. “I cannot.”
He offered no more than that, didn’t try to convince her it was real. That’s when she knew he was telling the truth.
“Oh, crap.” She tried to calm her galloping heart and her chaotic thoughts. She knew what the heroines in her books had gone through. She also knew that some of the earlier women, ones she hadn’t written about, hadn’t made it. This was truly a life-or-death situation.
“What do we do? I have to go home. Mary Jo said someone had broken into my house. Percy is okay, but I don’t know what might be missing.” Her mind clicked into gear. “Oh my God, do you think the break-in might have something to do with this?” She motioned to him and back to herself. “You know, the whole thing with Hades?”
Leander growled and leaned in until their noses were touching. “Who is Percy?”
“What? What does that matter?”
He growled again.
“He’s my cat.” The look on Leander’s face made her laugh. Her nerves were strung so tight, once she started laughing, she couldn’t stop. “You’re not my first cat,” she blurted out before going off into peals of laughter again. She really had to stop. The situation wasn’t the least bit funny.
Leander sat back on his heels with a slight frown on his face. He pounced faster than she could see, grabbed her legs and lifted them, causing her to fall back onto the bed. He parted her legs, shoved them over his shoulders and leaned inward. His massive shoulders pushed her thighs farther apart, opening her for him to see.
“What are you doing?” She swatted at his shoulders, but he wouldn’t be deterred. “Stop that.” She tried to close her legs, but it was impossible with his shoulders blocking her. Was it possible to die of embarrassment? Unfortunately, she didn’t think so.
“What am I doing?” he repeated. “I’m claiming what’s mine.”