Nathan ducked around the end of the aisle, pretending to straighten the boxes of tea on the shelves so he could watch Vince scoop birdseed into the little plastic bags they provided at the Bulk Mart. He knew the man's name was Vince because he'd scoped out the name on his debit card one day about two months ago. It was an awesome name, all high class and kind of 'rebel with a trust fund'-ish, which was what Nathan thought Vince looked like, too—dark hair and a narrow face on a lanky, well-cared-for body. He watched Vince bend over to drop a sack of niger seed in one of the store's carry-baskets and imagined what it would feel like to be shoved up against the wall while one of those thighs pushed his legs apart and rubbed against him. Nathan's blush burned up from his chest, all the way to his hairline, where he could feel it shining through his hair like a beacon.
Settle down, Nathan. You're going to set off the sprinklers.
Sighing, he made his way to the front of the store, breathing deeply to try to cool his flushed skin. Getting his mind on more appropriate things would be the smart thing to do, so he dug under the counter for extra stock to refill the bins of 'impulse buy' candy that covered the front of each register. He was halfway through topping off the bins of 'Snapping Gummy Turtles' when he heard the soft thump of filled baggies as they dropped onto the belt at his register.
"Hi, Nathan," Vince said, grinning the crooked grin that had such a ridiculous effect on Nathan's hormones.
"Hi," Nathan croaked back. He skirted the table in front of his register and slipped into place, ever so grateful for the oversized aprons that were the required uniform at the Bulk Mart. That way, Vince couldn't know that he got hard as a Macadamia nutshell whenever the man walked into the store. He dragged his eyes away from Vince's wide mouth and reached for the first of the sacks, dragging it onto the scale. Automatically, he punched in the code, waited for the beep, then plucked it off the steel plate and slid it into a plastic bag. As he reached for the next bag, it occurred to him that this was the second time this week he'd seen Vince in buying seed. He stopped and counted the bags. "I thought you just bought a bunch of birdseed. Did you put in some new feeders?"
"No, I've got some damned squirrel that's started raiding the two big feeders, and I can't keep them full."
"Oh." Nathan's stomach sank and a guilty flush spread across his cheeks. This wasn't good at all. Because that squirrel that was raiding Vince's feeders? That was him. "Maybe he's just hungry?" he suggested hopefully.
Vince snorted and shook his head. "Not likely. He's fat as a seal and getting fatter. I'll bet he's raiding feeders around the whole neighborhood."
Nathan's cheeks heated even more. It wasn't all the feeders in the neighborhood—just the two that gave him a perfect view of Vince's early morning showers and of his living room couch, where Vince liked to lounge in nothing more than his boxer shorts most evenings. And fat? Nathan discreetly sucked in his gut as he rang through the rest of the seed. He knew he'd developed some love handles recently, but he didn't think it was that bad. He flexed his stomach muscles again, testing. Maybe he should lay off the sunflower seeds for a while. But they were so good. "Everyone's gotta live," he said and smiled weakly up at Vince as he swiped Vince's debit card and punched in the total.
"Well, I wish he'd go live somewhere else," Vince replied, punching in his PIN with quick determined movements. The terminal beeped its approval of the transaction and he gathered up his bag. "Have a nice day."
"You, too." Nathan waved wistfully as Vince walked out of store.
Nathan hung off the side of the bird feeder, one paw hooked through the wire mesh holding a suet cake in place, the other holding a sunflower seed that he nibbled absently on as he stared through the window. He'd managed to stay away from Vince's feeders for two whole days before the need to see the man again got the better of him. So he'd changed his shape and scooted out through the cat door in the back porch, then run the whole two miles cross-country to Vince's home.
When he arrived, he skittered up the old oak tree that took pride of place in the big yard behind the house. Its branches spread almost thirty feet wide, and Nathan could look in every window in the building just by moving from branch to branch. But this bird feeder was, bar none, the best place to watch Vince in the big stand-up shower.
Nathan stared intently as Vince squeezed shampoo into the palm of his hand and started to lather up his hair. The muscles of his arms and upper back flexed with the movement, making Nathan's breath catch in his throat. Visions of those muscles flexing over him—in bed, on the couch, in the back seat of the car—plagued his nights, and he jerked off regularly to the fantasies he built around them. He heard himself whimper as Vince turned and arched under the stream of water to rinse the shampoo away. Water struck the window, washing away the blurring steam that had begun to coat the glass, for which Nathan said a prayer of thanks.
"Thanks be to God."
The words hummed around Daniel. He sat on the hard pew, his head bowed, going through the motions of Mass while his brain and heart struggled and searched for God's strength. He certainly didn't have it himself.
The terrible thing was that he knew it was practically cliché. A gay Catholic. The beginning of a bad joke. Well, the joke was on him. He'd struggled to keep faith when at twenty-one he'd nearly drowned and had been saved by an otter. No. An otter shifter. That had required some re-thinking. Both for his faith and what his faith encompassed. Shifters weren't mentioned in the Bible. But so much wasn't.
The word of God as written by men. He thumbed his well-loved and well-worn copy before standing with the congregation and shuffling out of the church. Maybe God hadn't told those chosen men about shifters. Maybe the men couldn't believe such a thing. And maybe, a small part of him always voiced, shifters were not in God's realm.
Daniel didn't think about that. He'd struggled over it already. Not only the sheer mind-blowing idea that his DNA could now flip to otter DNA, but what it meant for his relationship to God. But when he'd returned to church and prayer, he'd felt God listening. His heart had healed. God would not leave him for something he'd had no control over and that was hurting no one.
But people didn't picket about otters burning in Hell.
The thought almost made him smile. Almost, because the worry that had led him to the mid-week Mass still weighed on his shoulders. He walked, hunched, down the brick-paved path that cut from the church to the street that would lead him home. No, he'd come to terms with the strange ability—need, even—to become an otter.
His sudden sexuality was a different story. Before, he'd been what people would call asexual. Sure, he saw the appeal of the human body, but it didn't do anything for him. He may have found men more attractive and preferred their company, but he hadn't wanted to have sex with them—with anyone. Abstinence before marriage hadn't been a challenge. And then the change happened. Now abstinence was the least of his worries. Animals had more sexual drive, it seemed. He wasn't sure how the urge to reproduce could present itself so wrongly in him, but it had. Now his appreciation for the male form was...
He thumped the Bible against his thigh and inhaled. God would give him strength and guidance. He believed that. God had revealed the answers to previous problems, and He would answer this one as well.
"Deep in thought?" Liam's voice may not have actually been as smooth as melted chocolate, but it slid down Daniel's back just as deliciously.
"Just left Mass," he mumbled.
"I thought you went on Sundays. Is it a special day or something?"
"You mean 'holy day,' and no, it's not. I just needed—" He hesitated. Liam wasn't particularly religious, but he'd never teased Daniel for his faith before, either. "I needed some support."
"Is something wrong?"
A tricky question. Daniel shrugged. "Just working through some things."
Liam slid his arm over Daniel's shoulders and squeezed. He was always touching. "Is it anything I can help with? Even if it's just listening."
Daniel trembled, at least internally, at the contact. He may have shivered a little, but they were walking and he doubted Liam would notice. But the warmth of his proximity, the weight that grounded him, his slightly musky scent—they were otters, after all—drove Daniel crazy. No, Liam wouldn't be able to help, or else in confessing everything else, Daniel might confess that the one who made him struggle was Liam. He didn't want to ruin their friendship.
"Thanks, but no. I think this one is between me and God."
Liam squeezed his shoulder, then stopped him and pulled him into a tight hug. His breath was hot against Daniel's ear when he whispered, "It's not the shifting thing, is it?"
Daniel shivered. His heart pounded and his body reacted. His body always reacted when Liam touched him—which he did a lot—but it would be impossible to hide it when they were this close if the reaction, well, grew. He shook his head, enjoying the rough scrape of Liam's five-o'clock shadow too much. "No, I'm okay with that."
"Good." Liam released him slowly and checked him over, studying his eyes to make sure he spoke the truth. Nearly four years later and Liam was still terrified he'd made the wrong choice in saving Daniel by changing him. Times like this the thirty-year-old looked young and fragile. Looked like Daniel felt. He forced a smile on his face.
"You saved my life."
"Yeah. Some people would prefer to die. I know you weren't happy about it."
"That was before. It's fine. Please."
Liam's uncertainty cleared with a sunny smile. He pulled Daniel into another tight hug, only long enough to brush his whiskers against Daniel's jaw and say, "If you need to talk, I'm here."
"Thanks." They started walking again. "So what are your plans for the weekend?"
"Well..." He grinned, and Daniel knew he was doomed. "I was looking for you to see if you wanted to go up to the lake house for some proper swimming."
A weekend of swimming, unafraid of being seen by humans? Playing as long as he wanted? That sounded like bliss, to both halves of his new self. However, a weekend alone with the focus of his temptation, spending most the time naked except for their hairy pelts? That sounded like torture.
It was the night before February's full moon, and my soul hummed with sex and magic as I drove to the club. The villa that housed it sat on a hillside in what was once the outskirts of Madrid in Retiro. Over the centuries, the city had overtaken it, and much of the land had been sold, but the building had remained a retreat, set apart from the normal banality of traffic and petty conversation. I'd just returned to Spain after three months working in London, and anticipation quickened my blood. The moon pulled history out of the shadows as I approached.
The villa had been built in 1540 by Alonso de La Cumbre, one of Pizarros's officers, using Incan gold. After he'd returned from the New World, Alonso and several other former conquistadores had formed a secret society. For centuries, powerful men had plotted to increase their wealth and power within its walls. They'd supposedly engaged in deviant rituals, including (the stories say) orgies with animals. But I doubt they were normal animals.
The city changed, the times changed. The secret society was crushed by Franco and the remnants scattered in the aftermath. Today the villa hosted a private gay club called Conquistador. The irony isn't lost on many.
My ancestor, Martín de Zorita, was a soldier serving under de La Cumbre. He'd come back to Spain afflicted with a sickness "like unto a curse." Later stories said the sickness was punishment for his treatment of a native woman, since the illness manifested with the full moon.
Martín, by all accounts, didn't mean to infect his wife with this affliction, but he did and so two of his four sons were born with the same ailment. One was caught by the Inquisition. The other, between his intelligence and well-aimed bribes, avoided official notice.
There are varying stories on how this affliction was passed to the next generations, but family lore is clear on one point: Pedro Francisco de Zorita, the great-grandson of Martín, had a vision on the first full moon after his twentieth birthday and made a vow that each eldest son of his line would take on this curse as penance for the harms his ancestors had inflicted on the indigenous peoples of Latin America.
I'm glad I'm gay, with no children, so the curse will end with me.
My sister offered her son, but I refused. The curse that lives in my blood has no place in the modern world. Best it should pass away.
The parking is private and underground, accessed via a casually inconspicuous steel gate that is reinforced. I left my keys with José Antonio, the valet, and leaned my forehead against the top of the retina reader as I typed in my code. After a moment, the lights flashed green and the ornate iron gate swung back.
The marble ramp gave way to pavestones through the immaculately landscaped grounds up to the main entrance of the villa. It was warmer than London, and the path wound beneath trellises draped in greenery, adding to the air of mystery and seduction.
I didn't recognize the man who opened the door for me. He greeted me and welcomed me back with the correct mix of deference and familiarity. The staff at Conquistador are invariably well trained. They're all handsome; some are more willing to play with the guests than others, but the new greeter didn't meet my eyes.
I crossed the foyer to hand my jacket to Iván, who also worked as a model and looked the part. I'd had sex with him, and wouldn't have minded repeating the experience at some point, but he had a goal of sleeping with every member of the club before considering repeats. Anyway, there was one boy in particular I hoped to find tonight.
There was also the matter of my reputation at the club. It was a trick I could only pull off with the help of the moon.
"Eber! Hola!" Javier shouted out to me as I crossed into La Entrada Magnifica. He had an arm around a man I'd seen before, and he urged his companion toward me.
I'd fucked Javier once early last year. He was pretty (and the youngest son of a financier with all the attitude that implied) but not at all memorable in bed. Repeating the experience with another party present wasn't on my current agenda. Javier's companion didn't seem to want the company, either, tugging him to a halt and whispering in his ear. I gave them a thin, unwelcoming smile and turned away.
I never tired of standing in the entry hall and letting the history of the place seep into my bones. The original wood beams across the ceiling floated dark against the plaster. The walls were likewise white, the floor black and pink marble. The centerpiece was Alonso de La Cumbre's ceremonial suit of armor, steel and silver with gilt horizontal bands and epaulets in the form of flowers.
Next to it was another item from the original owner, a large walnut chest, still gleaming despite its age. Intricately carved, the dark arched sections contained delicately inlaid leaves of a lighter wood. The pattern echoed the arched windows and doorways, wainscoted in a pale wood sometime after.
The rest of the furniture had been built within the last hundred years, yet it all had an aura of luxury and decadence that was comforting after all the time away. The mahogany side table held glasses of champagne, bowls of mints and truffles, and condoms in handsome metal packaging. The large art deco mirror above it reflected the entrance of El Salón Negro, where dim lights and sleek leather furniture encouraged intimacy.
Dobson Healy looked out of the kitchen window as he washed his breakfast dishes, studying his farm in the growing morning light. Much to do today and none of it interesting. It was too big a farm for one man, really. He hired on seasonal help, but that ran into money. He fastened his overalls, put his straw hat on his head and walked out into the early June dawn.
There were chickens and horses and goats to feed. Sunflower needed a good currying, since she'd had a romp in the cockle-burrs yesterday. Dobson hated cockle-burrs. He poured a scoop of sweet feed into her box and opened the door of her stall so she could go run in the paddock. No sense letting her out into the pasture until he could find the cockle-burr bush and cut it out.
Daisy and Petunia hopped up on their milking benches, ready to be fed and milked. Dobson poured out a small measure of feed and milked them while they ate. He clipped leads to their collars and took them out to the orchard. The neighbors didn't care if he used his goats to keep the grass short under the apple trees or not, as long as he kept it short. He tied Daisy to the big jonathan apple tree at the north end and Petunia to the winesap at the south. Between them, they could graze on most of the orchard, including any lost windfalls from last year.
The hens clustered around, waiting for their feed. His lone rooster strutted along the fence, cock of the walk in the most literal sense. While the chickens ate, he raided the nests: two dozen eggs today. He left half of them to hatch out and carried the rest back to the house with the milk.
He got the basket and walked the rows of the garden. He made the last cutting of asparagus and brussels sprouts. The okra and summer squash were just coming on. The basket was full when he headed into the house. He'd have to blanch and freeze some of it before bed tonight.
He noticed the shutters of the low-slung ranch-style house were in need of paint. Maybe forest green again, and the house could do with a coat of cream. It had been light green with dark green shutters for ten years now.
Dobson grabbed a quick shower and headed out to the work site. Building season had really picked up this year, and he was making some money. There might even be enough to seed a couple acres with heirloom pumpkins and run a pumpkin stand this fall.
Eight to six, he carried two-by-fours and pounded nails as they framed up the latest split-level ranch in the new housing edition. Lunch was a quick bite from the pie wagon. Linda Sims, an enterprising lady who lived just up the road, had bought herself a catering truck and served a solid lunch to the local construction crews.
Dobson was one of her best customers. The new guys on the crew always gave him hell about how much he ate. They always took it back when they saw him lift four fifty-pound bags of cement on his shoulders and carry them across the work site with no more strain than strolling across a park.
"Strong as a horse," his foreman liked to say.
More than a few guys just called him Horse or Hoss, a reference to his strength and the long blonde hair that poured down his back. He kept it braided and tucked up for work. More than one had asked to touch that mane and then for more. Most had been college boys working for the summer and he hadn't seen them after the fall.
Dobson took his loving when he could get it, knowing very well he was a gay man in a small, rural Missouri community. He framed up a door, thinking wistfully of the bars up in Kansas City. There, nobody would care about the accessories he liked on his sex partners, only about what he wanted to do.
He didn't have enough to go into town this week. Maybe next week. But he kept thinking of the gas to get his old truck the thirty miles up and then back, and the cover charge and a few drinks, and that was fifty dollars he couldn't afford.
A night's pleasure wasn't worth three or four hours working in this sun. He moved on to help get the next wall done up and then went for a drink of water from the cooler.
He was careful not to guzzle it, but took it in slow sips.
The foreman looked him over. "We'll be done framing this one tomorrow, Hoss. And there's a dozen more to be done before the end of the month. You good for them?"
Dobson nodded and got himself another cup of water.
"You boys are going through that. I think I may need to add some electrolytes tomorrow. It's supposed to hit triple digits."
"Good for my corn, hell on my chickens, Bob," Dobson said.
Bob laughed and clapped him on the back. "Don't say much but when you do, it's always good. It is good for the corn. You got A/C in your chicken house?"
"I barely have A/C in my house. The chickens can take their chances in shade and a splashing pond." Dobson looked over the framed-up house. "You have anyone on the back bedroom?"
"All yours, old Hoss."
Carter Bly stared blankly at his father's tombstone, so exhausted now that he couldn't spare the energy to think about why he'd beaten his way out to the cemetery in the middle of a dust storm, too tired to think of anything except his own failure. One month his pa had been in his grave. One month was all it had taken for everything to go to hell.
The wind blew dry and hot this time of year across the Oklahoma Territories, stinging the skin with sand and filling every crevice of skin and cloth with dirt. Carter was aware, absently, that he looked a damn fool out here, battered felt hat clenched in his fist, dust marking out the premature lines in his face, carved after decades of squinting into the sun. He'd worked his whole life with his father on the ranch, worked to make it bigger and better. More animals, better feed, the finest cattle west of the Mississippi. Cattle that would command a great price at auction. Cattle that would give him and his sister an easier life than their parents had had.
Carter's eyes ached, red-rimmed and gritty from sleepless nights and never-ending frustration. He ran a clumsy hand through his hair, felt the strands clump thick and greasy against his palm. His mama would have switched him something fierce if she could see what he looked like right now.
He glanced over at his mother's tombstone, five feet away. It was a little rounder about the edges than his pa's, but the engraving was still clear. Caroline Bly had been dead for five years, and Carter had never thought of that as something to be thankful for before now. As it was, he was grateful she'd been spared the pain of seeing everything she'd worked for fall to pieces.
Well, not everything. From one way of looking, Millie had done more than all right for herself. Carter knew that was how his sister saw it; it was how she had to see it if she was going to live with herself. Both Carter and Millie had taken after their father, and while in Carter's case that made him a fairly handsome man, tall and long-legged and strong-featured, Millie had ended up a gangly, raw-boned and strong-featured woman, which no woman wanted to be called. She'd been convinced she'd live and die a spinster before their little town had become a stopping point for barges heading downriver to the big trading cities. Before Percy.
"Carter." A heavy hand clapped his shoulder, shaking him out of his reverie. "Come on back to the big house now, son."
His eyes prickled painfully at the word 'son,' but any moisture was soon swept away by the wind. "I will not sleep in that house while he's under the same roof."
"Half of that roof is yours," his company pointed out. "You should claim it."
"I can't." Carter shook his head, the freshness of his misery finally resurfacing. "I can't, Keena. I'll punch the man in the face before he says two words, and then who knows what his fancy-pants lawyer will be able to bleed outta me? I can't go back there, not..." Not broken. Not like this. Not while all I can think of is everything that I've lost.
"Then come home with me," Keena said gently. "Gertrude wants to get her hands on you anyway; she's convinced you'll starve to death without a cook around up there."
"Percy has provided his own cook," Carter sneered. "Calls him a chef, actually. Boy from the Loozy-Do who can't even make biscuits without burnin' 'em. Covers perfectly good steak with sauces, and he actually brought gator sausage with him. Throws it into the grits and ruins the taste. Gator. Who in the hell eats gator?"
"Come home," Keena repeated. "You can get a bath, get some food, some sleep. Tomorrow is soon enough to figure out the rest of it."
Carter wanted to argue, wanted to say that there was nothing to figure out, he was pure and simple screwed, that was all, screwed out of his inheritance by his besotted sister and her snake-eyed husband, but he knew Keena didn't want to hear that. The old man had worked on this ranch since before Carter was born, and he was the closest thing to family that Carter had now outside of Millie. Hell, he and his wife Gertrude might be Carter's closest thing to family including Millie, what with how she'd behaved of late, like some prissy, weak-minded debutante who wouldn't even breathe without asking for her husband's permission first. That wasn't the sister he knew. Nothing was familiar anymore, nothing except...
"C'mon now," Keena coaxed him, and Carter let himself be led away from his father's grave. There was no comfort to be had there, anyway.