The night Anica Revere turned Jasper Danes into a cat started out innocently enough.
They’d dated for nearly three weeks, and tonight lust ping-ponged across the restaurant table. Anica had anticipated this moment since she first glimpsed this dark-haired Adonis with golden eyes. Although Monday wasn’t a common date night, Jasper’s favorite restaurant was open and he hadn’t wanted to wait for the weekend to see her again. All the signs pointed to finally Doing It.
He studied Anica as if he wanted to lick her all over, which sounded great to her, except . . . she still hadn’t mentioned a significant detail, one that could be a real buzz kill. She hadn’t told him she was a witch.
With chemistry this strong, she was so tempted not to tell him, but one mistake with a non-magical man was enough. The image of Edward racing out of her bedroom a year ago still pained her.
He hadn’t even bothered to grab his clothes. Sad to say, a Chicago police squad car had been cruising by the apartment building and poor Edward had been arrested using a Keep Lake Michigan Clean leaflet as a fig leaf substitute.
She’d heard all about it from her neighbor Julie, who kept a video camera running from her third-story window in hopes that she’d get something worth airing on her brother’s independent cable show, Not So Shy Chi-Town. That clip made it on the show, no problem. To avoid legal repercussions, Edward’s features had been scrambled so no one except Julie and Anica knew who it was.
“You’re frowning,” Jasper said. “Anything wrong?”
Good thing he wasn’t a mind reader. “No, no. Sorry.” She smiled to prove that everything was hunky-dory.
He reached for her hand. “What do you say we get out of here?”
Whoops. She wasn’t quite ready to be alone with him. Better to reveal her witch status in a public place, where she could resist the urge to prove that she had special powers.
That had been her biggest mistake with Edward. He hadn’t believed her, and she’d worked one teensy spell to convince him and had been inspired by what was at hand, so to speak. He’d left before she could explain that his penis would return to its normal color in a few hours.
“I’m fine with leaving,” she said. “But there’s chocolate mousse on the dessert menu. Let’s get some to go. Mousse could be . . . a lot of fun.”
“Mm.” His gaze grew hot. “I like the way you think.”
As he signaled their waitress, Anica searched for the least threatening way to explain her unique gifts. After her experience with Edward, she dreaded broaching the witch situation. Maybe she should retreat to a quiet place for a few minutes and ask for guidance.
She pushed back her chair and picked up her purse. “I need to make a trip to the ladies room.”
He stood, a perfect gentleman. “Hurry back.”
“You bet.” All the way to the rear of the restaurant, she thought about how gorgeous he was and how much she wanted him. She imagined how his eyes would darken during sex. So far his lips had only touched her mouth and neck, but she could mentally translate that delicious sensation to full-body kisses. She longed to feel his dark chest hair tickling her breasts as he hovered over her, poised for that first thrust.
Despite her parents urging her to find a nice wizard boy, she’d always been attracted to non-magical guys. Because they couldn’t wave a wand or brew a potion to create what they wanted, they had to make it through life on sheer grit and determination. She admired that.
She’d noticed Jasper the minute he’d stepped into her downtown coffee shop. What woman wouldn’t notice six feet of gorgeous male with a physique that did great things for his Brooks Brothers suit? She’d become his friend once she’d learned he was suffering from a broken heart. Sure, he probably had the ability to recover on his own, but she wanted to help.
They’d progressed from conversations at Wicked Brew to a lunch date. That had been followed by two dinner dates, and after the last one he’d kissed her until she’d nearly caved and invited him upstairs, rule or no rule.
He had a right to know the truth before the kissing started again, though, and most likely he wouldn’t believe her. If he didn’t, she had to let him go. No clever little tricks to convince the guy, this time. But letting him go would be very difficult.
The bathroom was empty, which pleased her. She’d been hoping for time alone to prepare. Jasper was special and she didn’t want to muck this up if she could possibly help it.
Closing her eyes, she took a calming breath and murmured softly. “Great Mother and Great Father, guide me in my relationship with this man. Help me find the best way to tell him of my special powers. May we find a kinship that transcends our differences. With harm to none, so mote it be.”
The bathroom door squeaked open. Anica quickly opened her eyes, turned toward the mirror and unzipped her purse as a tall brunette walked in. Moving aside the eight-inch rowan wood traveling wand she carried for emergencies, Anica pulled out her lipstick and began applying another coat of Retro Red.
She expected the woman to head for a stall or take the sink adjoining Anica’s to repair her makeup. Instead the woman clutched her purse and watched Anica. Weird. Maybe this chick needed privacy, too.
Anica capped her lipstick, dropped it in her purse, and closed the zipper. Turning, she smiled at the woman, who didn’t smile back. Instead her classic features creased in a frown. Troubles, apparently. She looked to be in her late twenties, about Anica’s age.
“It’s all yours.” Anica started toward the door.
“Damn, I can’t decide what to do.”
Oh, Hades. Anica tended to invite confidences and she was usually willing to listen and offer whatever help she could. But now wasn’t a good time. “I’m sorry. I have to get back to my date.”
Anica blinked. “You know him?”
“Yes.” The woman sighed. “I stopped by here for a drink hoping to run into him, because he comes to this restaurant all the time. I should have realized by now he’d be involved with someone else.”
Anticipation drained out of Anica so quickly she felt dizzy. She looked into the woman’s soft brown eyes. “You’re Sheila.”
The woman nodded.
In the spot where hope had bubbled only moments ago, disappointment invaded like sludge. If Sheila was having second thoughts about breaking up with Jasper, then Anica should step aside. What Anica shared with him was mere lust, which might disappear once he found out she was a witch.
She made herself do the noble thing. “We’re not really involved.” Yet.
“I was afraid to ask if it was serious between you two, because it looked as if –”
“We were heading in that direction, but when I first met him, he was devastated over your breakup. If you regret leaving him, then maybe there’s still a chance to start over.” Anica wanted to cry. Jasper was the first man she’d had any real interest in since Edward and she was giving him back to his ex. Nobility sucked.
“Excuse me, but did you say I left him?”
“Yes. He said that he begged you to reconsider, but you –”
“Oh, my God.” Sheila gazed at the ceiling. “It’s déjà vu.” She closed her eyes and let her head drop. “I thought I was smarter than that. Guess not.”
“I don’t understand.”
When Sheila opened her eyes to look at Anica, her gaze had hardened. “I didn’t understand, either, until now. Tell me, did he say that I broke his heart?”
“Sort of. You know how guys are.”
“Apparently I don’t know enough about how guys are, but I’ll learn. Let me guess what he said.” Sheila deepened her voice in a pretty good imitation of Jasper. “I thought we had something special. I was all set to take her home to meet my folks in Wisconsin when she lowered the boom. Maybe I should have seen it coming. Maybe I dropped the ball somehow, didn’t live up to her expectations. I tried to get her to reconsider, but she was finished with me.”
Uneasiness settled in Anica’s stomach. Sheila had quoted Jasper almost word-for-word. What if this woman was a nut case who’d been lurking in the coffee shop behind a newspaper while Jasper spilled his guts? “That’s . . . approximately what he said.”
“I’ll bet a million dollars that’s exactly what he said. Because that’s the speech he gave me about Kate, his previous girlfriend. It touched my heartstrings, which appear to be directly connected to my libido. A few dates, and we were in bed, where I could mend his broken heart.” She blew out a breath. “I didn’t leave Jasper. He dumped me three weeks ago.”
Three weeks ago Jasper had walked into Wicked Brew for the first time and she’d elbowed her employee Sally out of the way so that she could personally serve him a latte. Jasper had shown up the next morning, and the next, and on the third morning he’d announced that his girlfriend had left him.
But Sheila couldn’t be telling the truth about that breakup. Anica prided herself on her ability to read people, and Jasper had been one forlorn guy three weeks ago. If he’d made up that story – no, she couldn’t believe that he’d do such a thing.
“I want to hear Jasper’s side,” she said. “I don’t see any reason why he’d –”
“Don’t you? He’s figured out that women are a sucker for a sob story. He hangs with a woman until he finds somebody he likes better. Then he dumps the current girlfriend and works the heartbreak kid angle with the new one. I fell for it. And the worst part is, if I could have him back, I’d take him, even knowing what I know.”
Anica shook her head, still unwilling to accept what Sheila was saying. “I’m sure there’s an explanation. Maybe you two misunderstood each other.” That still left Anica out in the cold if Sheila and Jasper reunited, but she’d rather see that happen than discover Jasper was a louse.
“It’s hard to misunderstand when someone says – it’s been lots of fun and you’re amazing, but it’s time to move on. That’s pretty damned clear, don’t you think?”
“Did you two fight about something?”
“No. All was peaches and cream. I’m guessing he met you and decided to trade up.”
Had Jasper lied to her? Anica couldn’t believe it, but there was only one way to find out. “I’ll talk to him.”
“You do that, and if you decide you don’t want him after you find out the truth, let me know.” Sheila thrust a business card in Anica’s hand. “He might bounce back my way.”
Anica stared at her in disbelief. “You’d still want him, even if he lied to you?”
“’Fraid so. I shouldn’t, but . . . he’s just that good.”
* * *
Jasper tried not to be worried. He’d noticed Sheila sitting at the bar when he’d first walked in with Anica. He didn’t know if Sheila had spotted him or not, but he’d asked for a table quite a distance from the bar, just in case. She’d seemed to take the breakup reasonably well, but there was no point in flaunting his new girlfriend.
Sheila was alone, but he told himself that she was probably meeting some guy here. A woman who looked like Sheila wouldn’t have any trouble finding dates. She deserved to hook up with someone who appreciated her more than he had.
For awhile he’d tried to tell himself Sheila was everything he needed in a woman, but then he’d looked into Anica’s startling blue eyes and experienced a zing of excitement he hadn’t felt in years. Immediately, he’d made a clean break with Sheila. It was the only fair thing to do, and he prided himself on never cheating on a lover.
Sheila had seemed fine with parting ways – no tears, no drunk-dialing, no trumped up visits to the brokerage house where he worked. He hadn’t run into her again until now. He was relieved that she’d remained at the bar and hadn’t wandered over during the meal, which might have been awkward.
Anica’s suggestion about the chocolate mousse in a to-go box had fired his imagination, and he could hardly wait for her to get back from the bathroom. Her apartment was within walking distance, a happy coincidence that meant they could have a romantic stroll to build the anticipation.
Weather conditions weren’t ideal for a stroll – icy March winds still blew down Chicago’s streets – but the breezes were subtly different these days, a shade warmer than they had been even a week ago. Spring was hovering, ready to swoop in and transform the city. Jasper planned on having sex with Anica tonight, but he’d thought way beyond that.
Spring was a perfect time to start a relationship, with buds opening, sap rising . . . yeah, the sap was rising in him, all right. This time, though, the sexual attraction wasn’t the only emotion driving him. He admired her body, but he also admired her intelligence and business savvy.
She’d opened a downtown coffee shop in an area Starbucks hadn’t mined because there was nothing to draw a nighttime crowd. Anica kept Wicked Brew open weekdays only from seven to four and made a killing from the office workers who didn’t have time to walk several blocks to Starbucks.
Admittedly, though, he hadn’t been thinking much about her business smarts tonight. Tonight he wanted to peel the clothes from her luscious, long-limbed body. He wanted to take the pins out of her blonde hair.
The image of undressing her made his cock hard. Because he’d have to wait a while before doing anything about that, he distracted himself by concentrating on the bill. As always, he gave a generous tip in honor of the nights during his college career when he’d held down this kind of job. God, had it really been ten years ago?
As he signed his name to the credit card slip, he glanced up to check Sheila’s seat at the bar, and she wasn’t there. So maybe she’d left.
Or not. A woman was heading into the restroom. The light was dim back there, but he had a bad feeling that woman going into the door marked with a stylized W could be Sheila.
That might not matter, though. Anica was due back any second, and besides, she’d never met Sheila. The woman in the bathroom probably wasn’t Sheila, anyway. He was getting paranoid.
He knew why, too. Anica had given him a whole new lease on life, both sexually and mentally. He’d even imagined sharing an apartment, which was major because he’d never spent more than a long weekend with a woman. As serious as he’d thought he’d been about Sheila, he’d never created a mental picture of what their combined lives would look like, which should have told him they weren’t right for each other.
Here he was already thinking about living with Anica, and they hadn’t even had sex. He pictured eating microwave popcorn and watching old episodes of South Park on Friday nights, flying kites over Lake Michigan on Saturday afternoons, battling for sections of the Trib on Sunday mornings. The scenes rolled in his head like a chick flick accompanied by a perky soundtrack.
Of course it was only their fourth date. They had plenty to learn about each other and he wasn’t making any stupid predictions at this stage of the game. But he had a special feeling about this particular woman. He wouldn’t be surprised if . . . but that was jumping the gun. He’d let things unfold as they were supposed to.
He sure wished she’d get back from the bathroom, though. Women did all sorts of mysterious things when they disappeared in there. One of them involved girl talk.
That was the part bothering him at the moment. Having an ex-girlfriend talking to a current girlfriend was never a good idea. He prayed that wasn’t going on.
At last Anica came out and started toward him. He stood, smiling, and picked up the take-out carton of chocolate mousse. When she didn’t return his smile, his anxiety level shot up about a thousand percent.
“We need to talk.”
He groaned. When a woman said that to a man, disaster was in the air. Now he was virtually positive Sheila had followed Anica into that bathroom. “Would you rather sit down and eat dessert here, after all?”
“No, let’s leave.” She headed toward the restaurant’s foyer.
Jasper had no choice but to follow, but suddenly he craved the protection of other diners. He didn’t think Anica was the type to make a scene in a nice restaurant. Then again, he wouldn’t swear to it. He didn’t know her that well.
When Anica reached the front door, she paused to take her black wool coat from where it hung on a garment rack. Jasper helped her on with it. He’d admired this coat the first time she’d worn it because it was so unusual, more a cape than a coat, with a generous hood. Contrasted with Anica’s blonde hair, the black coat and hood made quite a statement.
Once she’d settled her hood over her golden hair and was ready to step outside, he handed her the mousse so he could put on his tweed topcoat. Then he took the mousse back before walking with her into the chilly night.
The night was balmy, though, compared with Anica’s tone as she faced him on the sidewalk. “Your ex-girlfriend came into the bathroom while I was in there.”
“Sheila?” He’d hoped to sound vaguely interested, but the word came out as a croak of alarm.
Anica clutched her hood when the wind threatened to blow it off. “She made some pretty harsh claims, and I need to know if anything she said is true.”
“Okay.” Jasper turned up his collar as he tried to imagine what complaints Sheila might have had about him. He’d thought that he’d pleased her in bed, but maybe she’d been faking those orgasms. That wasn’t really his fault, although maybe he should have –
“Sheila says that you dumped her.”
“That’s not true.” He’d never dumped a woman in his life. Sure, he’d broken up with them, but he’d done it in the kindest way he knew how.
Anica let out a breath. “Thank goodness. I knew she had to be lying. She must be trying to salve her conscience by claiming that you’re the one who broke up with her. I apologize for doubting you.”
He should let it go at that. It was a harmless thing, this habit he had of using a broken heart as an entrée with a new woman. He should just agree with Anica that Sheila was lying and they could move on to the most excellent conclusion of their evening.
Admitting he had been the one to leave was only going to cause problems. The main thing was that he and Sheila were finished. Yep, that was all that mattered.
“Jasper?” She peered up at him. “Shall we go? It’s pretty cold out here.”
“Yeah, let’s go.” He took her hand as they faced into the wind and started toward her apartment building. Maybe Anica wouldn’t even care if she knew the truth, and at least that would clear the air between them. Nah, that was stupid. Why buy trouble?
“Does Sheila’s behavior bother you?”
“You’re being very quiet. Listen, if seeing her again has stirred up old feelings, then maybe –”
“It’s not that.” The wind blew harder, enough to make his eyes water. “You know, it’s not that important who does the leaving, is it? I mean, when a relationship is over, it’s over. Somebody has to make the move, but what difference does it make who walks out the door?”
“It seemed to make a big difference to you three weeks ago.”
“Oh, well . . .” He managed to dredge up a chuckle. “You know how it is. When you first meet somebody, it’s like a game. Every guy has some little strategy for breaking the ice. No harm, no foul, right?” He glanced at her to see if she was going along with this line of reasoning, but her hood kept him from judging her expression.
Her voice gave him no clues, either. “What sort of strategy do you have, Jasper?”
“Oh, you know.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “Maybe pretending to be a little more broken up over my previous relationship than I actually was. You can’t blame a guy for –”
She pulled her hand away and turned to face him, her blue eyes colder than Lake Michigan. “Yes, I can, Jasper. You broke up with her, didn’t you?”
“You mean technically?”
“Yes. Let’s get extremely technical.”
“I guess I’m the one who actually ended it, but it was the decent thing to do, after all. I’d met you, and I thought you were amazing.”
She stared at him, her face growing tighter by the second. “So you really like me, huh?”
“Yes.” He didn’t enjoy admitting his feelings under less-than-optimum circumstances, but maybe if she knew how he felt she’d get over being angry. “I think about you when I’m not with you, and when we’re together, time races by. It’s only been about three weeks, but you’re already a big part of my life.”
She nodded. “Good. Then you won’t have to lie to the next girl. Be as broken up about this as you want.” Spinning away from him, she hurried down the street toward her apartment.
He stared after her in stunned surprise. “You’re leaving? Over a little thing like that?”
Instead of answering, she quickened her pace.
“I can’t believe this.” Had any woman ever left him? If so, he couldn’t remember. And for Anica to leave him, the person he thought might turn out to be a life partner . . . This was just wrong. And he would by God fix it.
He had to run to catch up with her, and he could hear the mousse slopping around in the take-out container – the mousse he’d hoped to smear all over her naked body. “Anica, wait!”
She kept walking.
“Hold up a minute.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her to a halt.
She turned and glared at him. “Let go of me.”
He knew if he did, she’d start off again. He gulped in cold air. “Anica, take it easy. You’re overreacting.”
“Overreacting? You start our relationship with a bald-faced lie, pretending to be broken-hearted in order to worm your way into my life, into my bed, and you have the unmitigated gall to say I’m overreacting? You’re a real piece of work, Danes!”
“Come on. What I did is a small thing, nothing in comparison to the good times you’re throwing away.”
“If I’m throwing them away, it’s your fault, buddy. If you’re capable of that kind of calculated manipulation, how can I trust you to be honest about anything?”
He pulled her closer. “Trust your body, Anica. We have chemistry. You can’t deny it.”
Her nostrils flared, and for a moment, something closer to desire than fury burned in her gaze. “I won’t deny it,” she said through clenched teeth. “Unlike you, I tell the truth.”
“See? Now let’s just –”
“No!” Breathing hard, she lifted her chin in defiance. “Just because a girl has chemistry with a jerk doesn’t mean she has to act on it!” She wrenched free and backed away from him.
“Sweetheart, you’re cute when –”
“Finish that sentence and I won’t be responsible for my actions.” She backed away and held up both hands. “I warn you. Stay away from me, Jasper. I’m in a really bad mood right now, and you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
He’d never seen her so worked up, and he admired her spirit. Surely he could coax her out of this snit and then he could redirect all that passion into more productive channels. He couldn’t accept that he was about to lose her. Not over something so trivial.
He moved toward her again. “Come on, Anica. Be reasonable. Let’s talk this out.”
“Back off, lover boy!” She pulled something out of her purse.
“Pepper spray? Now you’re really being ridiculous.” Refusing to believe she’d hit him with the spray, he kept advancing. Anger and lust weren’t so far apart on the emotional scale. One kiss and he’d tip the balance in his favor.
She pointed the thing at him. “It’s my wand.”
He laughed. Now he knew for sure she was kidding around. “Not bad, although isn’t that a little small? I pictured them as bigger, but they say size isn’t everything.”
“Stay away from me.”
He wasn’t about to. She was way too cute. “Hey, if you want to go all Harry Potter on me and play let’s pretend, can we go up to your apartment and do it in comfort?”
“I’m serious, Jasper.” She shook the wooden stick. “Don’t make me use this!”
He grinned at her and kept coming. “Gonna turn me into a frog? How about I kiss you first? Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
Instead of stopping, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close. “Come here, you.”
“I said stop.” She shoved him way. Then she muttered something in Latin, and light spurted from the end of the wooden stick. He opened his mouth to remark on the cool special effects, but before he could speak, his body began to shake. He dropped the box of mousse as the tremors increased and his heart raced out of control. Good God, he was having a heart attack!
Anica stared at him in horror.
Do something! He tried to scream for help, but his lips refused to work. Her wide-eyed, terrified gaze was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.
“Dear Goddess, what have I done?” Cold sweat trickled down Anica’s spine as she gazed at the pile of clothes on the sidewalk and the hissing cat trying to work his way out from under them. Any minute the cat would be free, and then what?
She had no time to debate the matter. Stuffing her wand in her purse, she scooped up the clothes and the cat, wrapping the whole bundle inside Jasper’s tweed coat.
The cat’s response was immediate. He struggled harder, clawing and growling in his attempt to get away.
“Stop it, Jasper! I’m taking you home. I’ll find the spell to undo this, I promise.” She held tight to the bundle and glanced around to see if she’d been observed, if squad cars were closing in, ready to take her to the slammer. No telling what the sentence was for transforming a commodities broker into a cat.
And that was only the civilian punishment. Far greater sanctions awaited her if the magical world found out what she’d done. Twenty-first century witches and wizards were forbidden to use their powers to change a being from one form to another. Such things may have happened at times in the old days, but things were different now..
Luck seemed to be on Anica’s side tonight. The street was deserted except for a couple passing on the other side. The pair hurried along, not looking in her direction, as if wanting to get out of the cold wind.
She hoped she wasn’t close enough to the apartment to be within range of Julie’s camera. Julie had been saving up for a zoom lens. Anica prayed she hadn’t been able to afford it yet.
Anica had worn her do-me shoes with the stiletto heels on this date and now wished she’d chosen her black boots, instead. On these ice picks she had to be careful not to turn an ankle. If she’d been wearing the boots she could have made her escape much faster, and she and Jasper might never have had the confrontation that had gone so wrong.
He continued to squirm inside the bundle of clothes, and she hugged him tighter, determined not to let him escape. He yowled in protest.
“Rescuing a cat, are you?” said a voice behind her.
Anica didn’t stop, but she half-turned to acknowledge Edna Shoumatoff, the seventy-something woman who lived two doors down on her floor. Edna had never married and had a low opinion of men.
Judging from the small paper sack Edna clutched to her chest, she’d stepped out for a burger and fries and was on her way back to eat it in front of her TV. For winter outings, Edna wore a Russian Cossack hat, a red quilted jacket, and sweats.
“Hi, Miss Shoumatoff. Yeah, I saw this cat wandering around with no collar and decided to keep it from getting run over.”
“It doesn’t seem to like being captured.”
“That’s because he doesn’t know what’s good for him.” She wasn’t sure whether, as a cat, Jasper could understand everything she said, but she hoped so. Maybe he’d stop struggling if he realized she was doing the best she could to remedy the situation.
“So it’s a male, then?”
“Yes.” An arrogant, entitled male who had pushed her into an action she deeply regretted. She would make everything right, but losing her temper like that wasn’t like her. She’d been furious with him, but also at herself, because even knowing his true nature, she’d felt a dangerous tug of sexual excitement when he’d pulled her close.
That’s why guilt plagued her. She might have turned him into a cat partly out of fear that she’d fall under his spell again and lose all self-respect. After all, Sheila had been willing to take him back. He’s that good. Anica shivered.
Maybe Jasper did understand that she was trying to help him regain his human form, because he settled down a little, making him much easier to carry.
“I wouldn’t have anything but a female,” Edna said. “Males are nasty, and I’m not just talking about cats.”
Anica had listened to Edna’s anti-male rants many times before. The best response was no response.
“Dollars to donuts that cat you found is not fixed.”
“Uh, no, I’m sure he’s not.”
“I hope you’re planning to take care of that immediately. I can’t abide a male cat that’s not fixed.”
Jasper suddenly went very still.
“I know what you mean, Miss Shoumatoff,” Anica said. “I’ll take him in pronto.” It was the only reasonable response, after all.
With a screech, the cat turned into a dervish again, fighting harder than ever to get loose.
Edna laughed. “You’d think he understands English.”
“I have a feeling he does.” That could be both good and bad. She was breaking new ground, and she wasn’t sure she wanted Jasper to know all her secrets. The spell was an old one, something she’d read years ago in one of her history of magic books. Of course there would be a counter spell. Of course. She ignored the uneasy fluttering of her stomach.
“Your other cat’s a male, too, isn’t it?” Edna said.
Orion. Anica had forgotten her obstinate, pudgy tabby cat. She’d adopted him thinking he had a touch of magic in him, but Orion had turned out to be an ordinary cat. She loved him to pieces, anyway, and he would hate having another cat invade his territory. “Yes, he’s a male. I may have to keep them separated temporarily.” Until I get the spell reversed.
“An orange tabby, if I remember right. You got him fixed, I hope.”
“What color’s this stray?”
Anica had no idea. Once the spell had taken effect, Jasper had quickly disappeared into the mound of clothing and had been hidden the entire time, so he could be any shade, any breed.
She’d better improvise for Edna’s sake. “It was too dark to see very well. He was . . . sleeping under this mound of clothes.”
“I thought you said he was wandering around?”
“He was . . . earlier. I noticed him earlier, before I went to dinner. Then I heard him yowling under this bundle of discarded clothes and decided to take action.” For a person dedicated to truth-telling, she was cooking up a pretty good lie. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
Edna glanced at the bundle in Anica’s arms before she started up the cement steps leading to their apartment building’s front door. “Pricey coat to be somebody’s discard.”
“It’s amazing what you can find at Goodwill these days.” Anica had been wishing Edna hadn’t happened along, but now she was grateful for her neighbor’s presence. “I’m glad you’re here to get the front door. I’m afraid to let go until I’m inside my apartment.” With all this talk of neutering, she couldn’t afford to loosen her grip on the cat. She’d done this deed, and she had the responsibility for setting it right.
“All right.” Edna opened the main door. “I can help you into your apartment, too, if you want.”
“That would be great.” Anica and Edna climbed the stairs to the second floor. “My keys are in my purse.” Moments later, as Edna took her purse from her arm and started fishing around, Anica wondered if that had been such a bright plan.
“This is a strange looking thing.” Edna held up Anica’s wand. “Is it a pen? I don’t see any point.”
Anica laughed. “Oh, that. Just a piece of driftwood I picked up and polished because I thought it was pretty. Then I saw something on TV about using a sturdy pointed object for self-defense, so I decided to carry it.” The more she had to lie, the less comfy she felt.
“We wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if men were all neutered,” Edna said darkly. Eventually she located Anica’s keys and opened the door to her apartment. Orion was at the door, paws prancing in delight. Then he sniffed the air and backed up, growling. Obviously he’d smelled Jasper.
“Don’t forget. First thing, get him fixed.” Edna said.
“To be sure. Thanks for the help, Miss Shoumatoff.” Anica stepped into her apartment and shoved the door closed with her hip. Orion was gone, probably hiding in the cupboard underneath the kitchen sink.
As she began to lower her bundle to the floor, Jasper gave a mighty heave and broke free, wiggling out of his confinement. Dropping globs of chocolate mousse on her beige carpet, he streaked toward the nearest open door, which happened to be her bedroom.
She ran after him. “No! Don’t go under the . . .” A smear of chocolate mousse on her white Belgian lace bed skirt marked Jasper’s passage. She dropped to her knees beside the bed. She thought he might be black, although the mousse all over his coat made it hard to tell.
She’d forgotten all about the mousse, but the take-out carton must have been under the pile of clothes. She’d scooped up cat and mousse together. Someday she might have the distance from this horrible experience to laugh about that. But this wasn’t that day.
Lifting the bed skirt, she peered under the bed. “Jasper, please come out.”
Jasper was nothing more than a dark shadow hunkered under the exact middle of the double bed.
“We have to clean that mousse off.”
He didn’t move.
“I can’t work a spell to change you back to a man unless you come out.”
“Look, I can see why you wouldn’t trust me. You may not believe this, but I’ve never turned a person into an animal in my entire career as a witch. I’m not proud of losing my temper like that, but what’s done is done. Now I have to fix you.”
“Sorry, bad word choice. I have to transform you. I won’t let anyone near you with a scalpel, I promise. Now, come on out, like a –” She stopped herself before she called him a good kitty. Jasper was not a cat, no matter how much he might look like one at the moment.
Or act like one. That maneuver of running under the bed was very cat-like. While she was mostly horrified at what she’d done to another human being, she couldn’t help being curious about how this transformation had affected Jasper.
Would he still think like a man, or would he think like a cat? Would he develop a taste for cat food or would he crave a human diet? Would he hate the idea of a bath and prefer to lick the mousse off himself?
Yikes. Chocolate was fine for people but potentially bad for cats. “Listen, Jasper, if you feel the urge to lick that mousse, don’t. Some cats have a severe reaction to chocolate. It makes them very sick.”
She believed he understood human speech, so she decided to add a clincher to the warning. “If you ingest the chocolate, you could end up at the vet, and I’m sure my vet would insist on vaccinating and neutering you.”
Jasper hissed his disapproval but didn’t change positions.
She was getting nowhere. Maybe she should go to her living room bookshelves and find the musty old book where she’d first read this transformation charm. She could research the counter-spell while sitting here minding the cat.
“I’m leaving to get the book I need to help you, Jasper.” She stood and took off her coat. “I’ll only be gone a minute, and I’ll close the bedroom door so Orion can’t get in.” Laying her coat on the bed, she walked toward the door. “And remember, don’t lick.”
* * *
Lick himself? Eeeuuuwww! Jasper was convinced he was in the middle of a sickeningly real nightmare and he’d wake up any minute safely lying in his king-sized bed, in his condo, with his clock radio playing his favorite rock station. But even though none of this nonsense was actually taking place, he wouldn’t lick the mousse coating his fur. Gross.
He liked the idea that he had claws, though. He wouldn’t mind using them to scratch the hell out of the woman who had put him in this condition.
But he was dreaming. Of course he was. His dash under the bed had been pure self-preservation, and now that he was under here, he wasn’t coming out until he woke up.
The whole date with Anica must have been part of this crummy bad dream. He could hardly wait to wake up so he could laugh about it. The part about Sheila being at the restaurant – he could figure that out. Apparently he had a secret fear that she’d arrive unannounced and mess up his deal with Anica.
As for Anica being a witch, maybe it was the black coat that looked like a cape. Or maybe it was that chance remark his buddy Fred had made the other day at work, that Anica seemed to have cast a spell over him. The brain was amazing. Somehow it had put the cape and Fred’s remark together and come up with witchcraft.
The cat transformation wasn’t so tough to decipher, either, now that he thought about it. He’d always considered himself something of a tomcat, a man about town. All that talk about neutering was pretty scary, though. A shrink would probably have a field day with that part.
The door opened and closed. His hearing had improved considerably in this dream, and his sense of smell was outstanding. He knew Anica was in the room even before she spoke.
Her spicy perfume had seemed faint in real life. The scent was so much stronger now. Other smells assaulted him, as well, but two caught his attention. One he identified as belonging to another cat, the one he’d sensed when he’d first arrived in the apartment, and the second distinctive aroma was Anica’s. It came across as strongly as if he’d had his nose buried between her breasts.
“Still under there, Jasper?” She was in her nylons, so she must have taken off the sexy black heels.
Kneeling down, she lifted the lace bed skirt and peeked under the bed. “I brought the book.” She laid something as big as an unabridged dictionary on the carpet. “I should be able to find the counter-spell, no problem.”
Now that his panic had eased, Jasper felt like making some sort of response. What came out was a very ordinary meow. It didn’t sound particularly manly, either, so he tried again, determined to make the sound deeper. Still too high-pitched for his taste.
“So you’re talking! Does that mean you’re ready to come out?”
No way, Jose.
“When I start to do the spell, I’m sure you’ll want to be somewhere other than under my bed. I don’t think you’ll fit once you’re human again. Plus you’ll be – uh – naked. You might want to be somewhere you could grab a towel, like in the bathroom.”
Maybe this nightmare could turn into a good dream, after all. If his cat self transformed into his naked man self, and Anica was still part of the equation, they could have dream sex. Sure, she’d turned him into a cat, but it was all a dream so he could forgive her.
“Jasper? Come on. Don’t be stubborn.”
On the other hand, this spot under the bed had served him well so far. Tucking his paws under his body, he prepared to wait her out.
Cats were good at waiting, he discovered. The space under this double bed was very small. He smelled old wood and lemon oil. It was probably an antique. This dream was the most detailed one he’d ever had.
“I really can’t leave you under there. I’m going to levitate the bed.”
Holy crap! Could she do that? She was a witch in this dream, so anything was possible. Jasper tensed, his tail twitching, as he wondered if his hiding place would rise up to the ceiling. He’d run again if it did. There had to be other hidey-holes in this apartment, and he’d find them. A cat, he was discovering, could fit in very small spaces.
Anica murmured something in Latin, but the bed didn’t move. “Huh. That always worked when I needed to vacuum up the dust bunnies.” She chanted again. Still the bed remained on the carpeted floor.
She sighed. “All right. For some reason that spell has a glitch in it. I might as well quit fooling around and do this the normal way. Be right back.”
Jasper didn’t know what the normal way entailed, but when Anica returned, he found out. She shoved a broom under the bed.
He freaked. Rationally, he shouldn’t freak. It was a broom, for chrissakes. As a man, he didn’t have a single negative reaction to a broom. As a cat, he hated brooms. He hated this one in particular, which had a thick, round handle with carvings on it. Without knowing for sure, he decided it was a witch’s broom.
“I need you to get out of there,” Anica said. “Come on. Go.” She moved the broom back and forth under the bed.
Jasper tried to hold his ground, but in the end, he bolted. He ran for the bedroom door, but that was shut tight. He tried to squeeze under her dresser, but no dice. The sliding mirrored closet doors were closed, too. The only escape was through the bathroom door, and that was a dead end.
He knew that, but he had no choice. Racing through the door, he leaped into the tub and hid behind the shower curtain, which was, he belatedly noticed, decorated with glittery stars. The bathroom door closed, and he was trapped.
Her voice took on a crooning, seductive quality. “Poor Jasper. You were a louse about Sheila, but no guy deserves this.” She peeked around the edge of the shower curtain.
He cowered in the corner, hating that he cowered, but he couldn’t seem to help it.
“Looks like you’re an all-black kitty, with the most beautiful golden eyes. That makes sense, I suppose with your natural coloring. Well, enough chit-chat. Let’s see what counter-spell I need to invoke.”
The sound of Anica flipping through pages of her book was the only noise in the room, except once when the heat switched on. That was the other thing Jasper had noticed when he’d become transformed – the bitter cold of a Chicago March night. He’d been covered by a pile of his clothes, but even so, the sidewalk had felt like ice under his paws.
Of course, that hadn’t stopped him from struggling to escape when Anica had picked him up to take him home. Better to be freezing and in charge of his life than to be a prisoner sitting in a warm apartment depending on someone else to provide food and shelter. Jasper hadn’t liked that feeling as a kid and he didn’t like it now as a cat.
His parents had controlled his every movement until he turned eighteen. He realized now it had been out of concern, but he’d felt smothered and had rented his own apartment the minute he could save enough money. Staying in control was important to him, which made this dream his ultimate nightmare.
“Hm.” Anica flipped a few more pages. “Maybe in the index,” she murmured to herself.
Jasper didn’t like the sound of that. He hadn’t heard an aha of discovery yet. What if she couldn’t find a counter-spell?
Then he chastised himself for being a fool caught up in this fantasy. Whether she found a counter-spell or not, he would eventually wake up and all this would be forgotten. A nightmare might seem to last forever, but they all had to end sometime. The clock radio would click on at six-thirty and he’d hit the snooze button to give himself another five minutes.
Then again, he might not hit the snooze button this time. Not if going back to sleep meant returning to this wacko dream.
“That’s weird,” Anica said. She sounded puzzled.
Despite knowing that nothing really mattered, Jasper felt his gut tighten. Without him willing it, his tail twitched from side-to-side. The tail part intrigued him. Switching his tail was a much better stress buster than drumming on the table with his fingertips.
He became aware of Anica’s breathing, which wasn’t as steady as it had been when she’d first settled down to read the book. He would bet a hundred bucks that she wasn’t finding what she’d expected to, and she was becoming agitated. When she closed the book with a bang, he knew for sure.
“I’m an accomplished witch.” She said it as if trying to convince herself. “I can create my own counter-spell. Okay, Jasper. Show time!”
The curtain swished aside and he stared up at her. She held a pointed wooden stick in one hand. The thing she’d used on him before had been more compact. This one measured at least eighteen inches and was made of some light-colored wood that had been polished until it gleamed.
She raised it like a conductor about to signal the beginning of a symphony. Then she pointed it directly at him and started in with the Latin phrases. They sounded very official, and if anything could do the trick, this stream of Latin should. He became mesmerized listening to her.
After about five minutes of constant chanting, she lowered the wand and put both hands on her hips, the wand sticking out to one side. “This is one stubborn spell, Jasper. But I’m going to beat it.” Taking a deep breath, she raised the wand again, pointed it at his nose, and resumed chanting.
He decided to help. Lifting his head, he began yowling in time to her chanting.
“Great!” She paused for breath. “That’s excellent! Keep it up!”
She spoke Latin and he spoke cat for at least another ten minutes, but nothing came of it. He kept expecting his body to stretch and the fur to fall away. He’d already picked out the towel – a light green bath sheet – that he’d use to cover himself once the transformation took place.
Except it never did.
Anica stopped chanting. “Let me test this wand. I’m not sure it’s working.” She pointed the wand at the toilet and muttered something. When nothing happened, she jiggled the toilet handle and tried again. No response. “Flush, damn you!” She was clearly getting upset.
Jasper hopped to the edge of the tub and stared at the toilet, willing it to flush.
“It’s the wand. I’ll try my other one.” She stormed out of the bathroom, leaving the door open.
Jasper could have run out, but he didn’t see the point. If her other wand worked, then he’d be transformed any minute. There still could be time for some dream sex before the alarm went off, which just might salvage this awful nightmare.
From the door of the bathroom, Anica pointed her short wand at him and chanted with more intensity. After several minutes of chanting with no observable result, she lowered the wand. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
She wasn’t the only one. He’d been looking forward to dream sex with her.
“Jasper, I’m not sure what’s going on here, but my magic seems to be on the fritz.”
“I hate, hate, hate doing this, but I have no choice. I have to call my sister Lily.”
Because she said it as if delivering a death sentence, he was immediately afraid of this Lily person. Hopping back in the bathtub, he scrunched down in the corner.
“Oh, Lily’s not that bad. It’s just that I’m usually the responsible one and she’s the screw-up. We’ve had our issues over the years, and although we’re not enemies, we’re not fast friends, either. Seeing what I’ve done to myself – and you,” she added hastily, “will send her into gloat mode. But she’s pretty good at magic, so she might be able to take care of this problem.”
Jasper marveled that he’d had dozens of conversations with Anica over the past three weeks, and she’d never mentioned a sister. They couldn’t be very close. Then again, this was a dream. The real Anica might not have a sister at all.
She closed him in the bathroom while she went to get her cell phone. He made use of the time to hop up on the counter and look at himself in the mirrored wall above the sink. He’d been wondering what he looked like, and if he was as sleek and elegant as he imagined.
Not so much. The creature staring back at him looked like it’d been put through a food processor. Dull black fur, about a half-inch all over, was matted with dried bits of chocolate mousse. He had globs of it clinging to the tufts in his ears. In fact, he was the ugliest cat he’d ever seen. Fuckin’ A.
He hated the idea of licking his fur. Hated it. But he hated looking like a dumpster diver even more. He pawed at the faucet and managed to turn it on. Then he wasn’t sure what to do next. Stick his head under it? Climb into the sink?
Just at that moment, Anica opened the door with the phone to her ear and spied Jasper. “Wait, Jasper.” She picked him up from the counter. “I’ll give you a bath, instead.”
Like hell. He wasn’t about to trust her to do that without somehow drowning him. He felt his claws sink into her arm as he launched himself away from her and out the bathroom door. He didn’t feel bad about scratching her. She’d brought it on herself.
He scampered through the bedroom and romped down the hall, loving the freedom, ready to do whatever it took to get himself out of this hellacious mess. Then he skidded to a halt.
Blocking his way was the cat he’d sensed earlier when he’d first come into the apartment. He was an orangey color, and looked enormous with his back arched and every hair sticking straight out. He was the cat from Hell, and if Jasper wanted his freedom, he had to go past him.