This is the entire text of Cooley’s Panther, which is free at many websites if you prefer to read it on your e-reader.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Published by Jody Wallace (Meankitty Publishing)
Copyright ©2011 Jody Wallace
Cover by Laideebug Digital
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This ebook is licensed for the original buyer only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people at online sharing sites, loops, discussion boards or through other means. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Author’s Note to Readers: This story in an earlier version originally appeared in SUM3: An Anthology of Speculative Romance, which is now out of print. This version is updated and expanded.
About the book: Miss Nicola Johansen, otherwise known as Cooley, relies on the predictability of her suburban subdivision to keep her feeling safe. When she spies a black panther slinking along her back fence in the wee hours of the morning, her comfortable life is shaken like a maraca. Repeated calls to the cops result in an investigation, and a finger of blame is pointed at the mysterious man who lives in 2201 down the street. Like the fact his yard is a disgrace wasn’t enough reason to suspect that man of nefarious dealings–the animal pens behind his house are the clincher.
But what happens when Cooley finds out the mysterious man isn’t quite the scofflaw she assumed? What happens when she finds out he’s absolutely…magnetic?
The police were first to arrive, some twenty minutes after she called. Cooley had just finished printing out the digital photo of the panther she’d spotted in her back yard. It was about six thirty in the morning, and the day wasn’t yet as muggy and hot as it would get this afternoon.
“Look here.” She met Officer Mofield on her flagstone porch and shoved the print-out into the uniformed woman’s hands. “Tell me that’s not a panther. Well, really, a leopard, but panther’s the most common name for the black ones.”
“Cooley, you have to quit making prank… Holy moly! That’s some alley cat. When did you take this?” The officer dropped one hand to her hip and unsnapped her weapon holster, eyeing the neat hedge that lined Cooley’s front porch with suspicious eyes.
“About five this morning, right before sunrise.” Cooley’s heart raced with the excitement of the finally vindicated. “The zoo denies it, but after they misplaced those gazelles last year they probably don’t want to publicize another escapee.”
Officer Mofield shook her head. “They’d be legally obligated to report something like that.”
The officer’s doubt didn’t change the fact the animal had been caught in the crosshairs of Cooley’s digital camera. “I had to lighten the image to reveal the cat’s silhouette. If I could get a better shot in sunlight, you could see the rosette markings underneath all that melanin. Beautiful animal, but he’s out of his element.” Cooley’s finger traced the sleek, black body of the loping panther in the photo.
Officer Mofield looked up from the paper. “Can you show me this location?”
“It’s in the back. We’ll go through the house.”
Before the policewoman entered, she flicked on her radio and muttered something to dispatch telling animal control to get their hind ends up here after all.
“Coffee or ice tea?” Cooley offered. She didn’t want to delay the search, but her grandmother, a firm advocate of Southern hospitality, taught her she’d catch more rabbits with a carrot than a snare. Cooley was only thirty, but that was no reason to disdain good old-fashioned manners.
“Maybe later,” the officer said. “Right now let’s check this animal sighting.”
Cooley allowed Officer Mofield to precede her to the screened back porch and the freshly mown yard. Good thing she’d just cut the grass or no telling what her guest would think. Sometimes she let it go two, three weeks since her privacy fence concealed it from the neighbors. Everybody needed a secret, and that was one of hers.
Aside from that, she had the greenest lawn on the block—not like 2201, two doors down. That yard was half crabgrass and the other half dirt. Some guy had moved in months ago, and she rarely saw him, despite being just a little nosey. The least he could do was pay a lawn service to keep up appearances. She’d even circulated a petition which she’d handed over personally, but it hadn’t made an impact on the horrible man.
What was a mean-faced single guy like that doing in a quiet suburb like this anyway? Same as her, maybe. Keeping secrets. But still. He ought to keep his secrets and his yard.
She and Officer Mofield descended the porch steps into the yard. “The panther was near the birdbath.” Cooley pointed. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him.”
“I know that, Cooley. You always call it in.” Officer Mofield strode across grass and held up the photo, comparing it to the view. The privacy fence hid the yard from the front and sides. The back, however, was woven wire, which surrounded a large pasture. Beyond that was a heavily wooded park. Nice panorama. Cooley always sent Mrs. Grinfeld, who owned the acreage, thank-you notes on appropriate holidays, like Arbor Day, for keeping it green instead of selling out to developers.
The spot where Cooley had captured her nocturnal passerby on film was a gap in the small trees that had grown next to the wire fence. Officer Mofield handed the photo to Cooley and eyeballed the scene.
“Mighty big stray cat,” she said finally. She knelt by the fence and scanned the ground, then walked the fencerow, gaze on the grass. “From the photo, looks like the animal was outside your yard.”
“There’s no tracks.” Cooley watched Officer Mofield search the area. “The fescue I planted in my lawn is too healthy to hold a print.”
“How many times have you seen the animal?”
“Five.” Cooley ticked off her fingers. “My cats woke me the first time—I usually get up when my clients start calling at seven—and there he was. He does the same thing each time. He slinks along the fence, always from the right to left, like he’s headed for the road. I would think he’d be headed for the park.”
“He probably left the scene, but we’ll check anyway.” Officer Mofield re-snapped her holster and clambered over the fence. Cooley was ready for this, in a jogging outfit with her long black hair braided, so she climbed over, too. They paced along the perimeter in the opposite direction of the cat’s path. They went a quarter mile before the subdivision ended in a dogleg of Mrs. Grinfeld’s pasture. Beyond that, the park, with its trees and quiet river.
At least to Cooley’s assessment, there were no traces of the cat’s passage. No scat, no prints, no rabbit heads. Officer Mofield probably wasn’t trained for this particular duty, but Cooley gave her points for effort.
“We should search the park.” Cooley peered across the uncut hay in the pasture to the distant tree line. She could picture the animal perched in a tall pine while the cops below searched in vain. “I bet he’s denned up somewhere there.”
“I need to concentrate on the area of the sighting,” Officer Mofield said. They returned to the house, halting briefly to acknowledge Cooley’s neighbor Mr. Cooper watering his tomatoes.
The policewoman bypassed Cooley’s yard. “It was headed this way, Cooley? East?”
“Right along the fence.” Cooley tilted her head toward her neighbor’s house. “The same direction. Roughly the same time of day, too.”
“Then let’s see what we find,” Office Mofield said, and they paced beside the fence along the same path Cooley had seen the panther take.
They soon reached the back yard of the mean-faced man in 2201. It was even more disgraceful than the front. A rusty garden shed, a shabby gas grill on a cement porch—no screen, no furniture, no flowers—a tipped-over garbage can and, interestingly, two large animal pens. A tire swing hung from a tall oak; the swing was left over from the family who lived here first.
There was hardly any grass. Guess he didn’t need to mow back here. Which meant hiring a lawn service would only cost half as much.
“Who lives here?” Officer Mofield asked.
Cooley absorbed information about the people around her like a sponge but rarely offered it, when it harmed no one. Telling Officer Mofield what she’d concluded about her neighbor served him right for slamming the door in her face after she’d explained about the state of his grass and their subdivision standards.
Besides, she’d never been asked questions by the police when she was actually involved in the investigation. She had a moral and legal obligation, and didn’t that trump her “Listen, learn, but don’t repeat” policy?
“He’s new,” Cooley said. “He drives a black van and never comes to block parties. You can tell by his yard he’s not the best housekeeper. He didn’t even put a wreath out at Christmas. Say, would you be able to enforce a petition for him to clean up his yard?”
“No.” Officer Mofield studied 2201 intently.
“He handed out pencils at Halloween. Anyone knows kids want candy. I’m guessing single, mid-thirties, no children.” She recalled the scruff of whiskers on his chin, black as coffee, and the irritation in his eyes when he’d looked her over, in her flattering pink church dress and holding out the paper with all the signatures. “Maybe a painful divorce, too.”
“You turning detective on me, Cooley?” Officer Mofield flipped out a notebook and jotted down a few words. The woman wasn’t one of Cooley’s usual contacts on the force, but that didn’t mean she never would be.
“What are you writing?”
“Never you mind. Well, well. What have we here?”
There, in the dusty, tan soil of 2201’s unkempt yard, next to the garden shed, was a perfect panther paw print.
When they got back to Cooley’s house, Officer Mofield retrieved the photo, thanked Cooley, and sent her inside. “Let us know if you spot any other unusual animals, Cooley. My partner and I will take it from here.”
“So you think the panther is that guy’s pet and not from the zoo?” That didn’t seem likely to Cooley—surely she’d have heard or smelled a panther living two houses down—but what other reasonable explanation was there? A man and woman two subdivisions over had been running a phone sex line out of their home for years, and nobody besides her had caught on. Then there were the hoarders and the cheaters and the newspaper thieves.
Sometimes even when you knew something was possible, that didn’t make it probable. The simplest explanation was always best. She didn’t share any of the things she learned if the people weren’t hurting anyone. It was their business and didn’t interfere with hers.
If the people were hurting someone, that was different.
“We’ll check all the options,” Officer Mofield told her. Another squad car pulled up at Cooley’s house—Lord, her neighbors were going to think she was running a meth lab—and Officer Mofield ambled over to it as Cooley settled into a rocking chair on her front porch. She should probably start answering the phones for the desktop publishing business she ran out of her home, but then she’d miss it when they wrote up Mr. Shabby Yard for keeping exotic pets without a permit and letting them out to terrorize innocent citizens.
And guilty citizens as well. She felt a tiny twinge that she’d instigated this legal action, but then she remembered how many pieces he’d ripped her petition into.
Lots. They’d cluttered his yard for weeks, until a storm blew them next door, where they were disposed of by a more conscientious resident of the subdivision.
Through the river birches in her front yard, she caught glimpses of the officers and heard voices, but unless she wandered into the street, that was all she’d get. This wasn’t her exercise hour, so if she jogged now, her neighbors would know she was being nosey.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cooper was out dragging his dog, the short boxer huffing and puffing behind him, and Mrs. Ingles was openly gawking from across the street. She held her portable phone to her chest, waiting to call her sister Ima at the first sign of conflict.
Well, Cooley didn’t want Officer Mofield annoyed with her. The woman had answered three of her five calls about the panther, and Cooley didn’t want to push it. No reason to rile the police, and lots of reasons to stay on their good side.
The voices changed focus, as if they’d relocated to Mr. Shabby’s back yard. 2201’s privacy fence had a gate big enough to drive a van through if he wanted, and who’d ever know if he had? Tire tracks would hardly leave ruts in a yard that dried up and poorly tended.
Unfortunately, no matter how intently she listened, she couldn’t distinguish words.
Was he keeping exotics in that house or what? It was a two story brick, nice front porch, big bay windows. Dark green shutters, to match the shingles and trim. Enough room for a menagerie in there. Did he have a wolf, an alligator, or—shudder—boa constrictors? Or just the panther? How was he feeding it and keeping it quiet?
Cooley unbraided her hair and finger-combed it, pondering her next move. She’d feel better if she knew where the panther was coming from and where he was headed. This was assuming animal control didn’t take him to a zoo where he belonged.
Well, really, he belonged in India or southeast Asia, but if he’d been partly domesticated, he probably shouldn’t be released there. Poor guy. Cooped up in a human house or behind bars. Not the way he’d want to live, she was sure.
After a time, Cooley gave up and went inside, checking the window in her upstairs bathroom periodically in case she could glimpse anything. She got involved in a brochure snafu at the printer, and before she knew it, it was lunchtime and both cop cars had disappeared.
Cooley finished her tuna salad sandwich, tossing bits to Sam and Nala, her cats, and considered her plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. She was a lean woman, thanks to a high metabolism, but there was no reason to get hopped up on sugar when her workday was only half over. The problem was, cookies were irresistible.
After cookie number three, she realized they’d be irresistible to people other than herself and conceived of a plan.
This time she wore a low-cut blue silk shirt and cropped pants. The color matched her eyes, and the salesman at the printer always hit on her when she wore this outfit. She held the plastic-wrapped plate like a peace offering and knocked on the door of 2201.
Unlike the first time she’d cooled her heels on his porch, petition in hand, Mr. Shabby yanked open the door immediately. “Unless you have a search warrant… Oh, it’s you.”
“Hello, neighbor,” she said brightly. “Lots of excitement around here today.”
She extended the plate of cookies, which he accepted automatically, his thick eyebrows arching in surprise. His dark hair resembled a mop that had been used violently, and he wore a stained up T-shirt and sweatpants.
“I’m not paying for these,” he said, “not even if little Tommy’s got to have surgery. And I don’t want to come to your damn church, either, so don’t ask.” He shoved them at her, but she tucked her hands behind her back.
“I’m not selling anything,” she said. “I just realized I never formally welcomed you to the neighborhood.”
He smiled. His teeth were very white. “I’ve been here nine months. You don’t call nagging me about my yard a formal welcome?”
She crinkled her eyes in a friendly way and shrugged, aware this gesture had been known to melt lesser men. “I’m the president of the Beautification Committee. It’s my job to inform new occupants about neighborhood regulations. Surely they told you about it when you bought the house?”
He tucked the hand not holding the cookies under his opposite arm, which drew her attention to his chest. Nice pecs, but the grubby shirt left something to be desired.
“My realtor said this was a quiet neighborhood where nobody’d bother me.” His eyelids lowered halfway. “I guess she didn’t tell the whole story.”
Cooley pursed her lips and extended a hand. “I’m Nicola Johansen. My friends call me Cooley.”
“It’s Miss.” Cooley tried to peek past his broad shoulders into the house, but he moved to fill the doorway. “Really, it’s just Cooley.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth. Maybe he wanted to eat one of her cookies. Maybe he wanted to bite her head off.
“And you are?” she prompted.
She sighed deeply, on purpose, and his gaze dropped to her chest. Finally. There was a human male in there somewhere. “If you don’t tell me your name, I’ll ask my friend Officer Mofield, which will remind her of your behavior today. I’m trying to be sociable. Is it a crime to want to know who lives next door? You can’t be too careful these days.”
“Well, Evan Sabello, what do you do for a living?”
“I stay busy.”
The man was outside of enough! If she’d had hackles on her neck, which she didn’t, exactly, they’d have risen in annoyance. He must have something to hide—like unlicensed exotic pets. Or worse. He had no reason to be this ugly when she’d given him her wonderfully-scented and still warm Tollhouses. The rest of him wasn’t ugly.
“I’m in desktop publishing. If you need a newsletter or brochure, my card is taped to the bottom of the plate.” She bit her bottom lip. “I hope you like homemade chocolate chip cookies.” She backed up a few steps, as if she were about to leave, and tried to look sad.
Evan Sabello, if that was his real name, rolled his dark eyes. He definitely had an Italian gene or two, sort of smoldering and hairy. Too bad about the attitude. “I used to be a travel writer. Now I’m working on a different kind of project.”
“Married? Kids? Family nearby?”
“So you’re home in the daytime?” she asked. “So am I. We could do lunch.”
“I work nights. Don’t come over and bother me. I won’t answer the door.”
“Not even if I bake a lasagna and realize I can’t eat the whole thing?” she said with a flirtatious smile. Like she’d bring half of her Grandma’s special recipe lasagna to this grouchy beast. But she couldn’t resist teasing him. He was so serious and cranky, and he needed to get some sun. He could start by tending his yard.
“Do not ever, ever come over here at night!”
His statement was so emphatic she stepped back again, almost stumbling off the porch.
“Okay, okay.” She held up her hands to fend off his displeasure. “I guess telling me whether or not you’re actually keeping a leopard in there is out of the question?”
“The police said they were looking for a panther.”
She pulled her back-up plan out of her pocket, a photo of the big cat behind the wire fence. “The animal I saw is a leopard. A black one. A jaguar is stockier and not as elegant as this animal.” She glanced at him under her lashes. “Is he yours?”
Evan flinched away from the paper. “Hell, no. Just like I told the cops, the cages are for rabbits, of which I currently have none and for which I don’t need a permit.”
“I guess that means you aren’t going to invite me in so I can pet your panther?” She smirked, knowing the statement was ridiculous, provocative, and bound to get a rise out of him.
“The last thing I need is a busybody poking around in my house. Or the cops.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Do I look like a busybody?”
His gaze trailed down her form, touching all her parts. Even in the heat of the summer sun, she felt a chill goose-bump her flesh. His examination ended at her toes. “You’re barefoot.”
“I don’t like shoes.” Cooley trailed all his parts with her gaze in return and discovered a commonality. “You’re barefoot, too.”
“I don’t like shoes, either.” His gaze flicked back to her face and eyes. The corner of his mouth quirked, revealing a lightning-fast change of mood. “You’re very beautiful. Your hair looks black, but in the sun, I can see flashes of gold.”
She’d been wrong. His eyes weren’t black or brown. They were dark, dark blue, like midnight sapphires. And they unnerved her, even as she could feel them devour her. His lips parted and his nostrils flared, as if he were scenting her, breathing her in.
She had his attention. His very direct attention. Now what should she do with it?
Her toes tingled. So did some other areas. She retreated down the stairs. “I think you’ll enjoy those cookies. Have a nice day, Evan.” She used his first name, like they were friends, and hoped he couldn’t tell how her pulse raced.
His midnight gaze burned through her back as she hastened across his yard, raising puffs of dust with every step.
Cooley set the clock for four-thirty a.m. and went to bed early. If that cat slipped past her yard again, its great paws shushing across the fescue, this time she’d be twice as ready.
She’d always loved cats, all kinds of cats. Big cats, house cats, even those hairless cats. When she was small, she’d told her mother she was going to grow up and be a cat, which had made her parents laugh. But a robbery gone awry had taken her parents away from her so long ago, she could hardly remember more of them than that.
The task of rearing her had fallen to her grandmother, ill-equipped to deal with a child like Cooley. Her grandmother died nine years ago, and with her small inheritance Cooley had bought this house.
She lived a ripple-free existence, didn’t make waves, measured twice and cut once even when it didn’t matter. Sometimes it seemed the additional caution was the only thing keeping her from falling into little, fragmented bits.
A leopard loose in her neighborhood definitely required extra caution. A scruffy, unfriendly man two doors down, a man who could be anything from a zookeeper to a murderer—another situation that required extra caution. Extra maneuvering. Especially since she’d awakened his interest, or something, this afternoon. She hadn’t meant to wake the beast, just get a look at him.
When four-thirty a.m. arrived, Cooley dressed in black, put on shoes, and loaded her pellet gun before slipping outside to crouch in the deep shadows beside her gazebo. Around her neck, she placed her camera.
When the leopard trotted by, giving her house a long, luminous glance, she flowed after him. Since the cops had failed to make headway today, she’d find where he denned. Leopards were nocturnal, lazing through the heat of the day as they digested their meals or tussled with their young. And a black leopard was even more a creature of the dark.
Cooley had good night vision, and she saw the leopard’s ears flick when she climbed the woven wire fence. She clutched her pellet gun and hoped she didn’t have to use it. The only shooting she wanted to do tonight was with her Nikon.
The leopard didn’t turn. Cooley breathed a sigh of relief. She scented the big cat’s musk, both sultry and acrid in the brisk night air. She was ready for a run, but as it happened, she didn’t have far to go. All grace and sinew, the cat vaulted into Evan Sabello’s back yard.
Cooley crept under the part of Evan’s oak tree that extended over Mrs. Grinfeld’s pasture. In the timid glow of the stars, she watched in shock as the sleek leopard rose on his hind legs and blurred like an out of focus television program. With an audible snap, the big cat morphed into Evan Sabello himself.
A magnificently nude Evan Sabello, his pale, muscled limbs gleaming under the sliver of white moon.
Cooley rubbed her eyes. He was still there, still built like a legend, tight abs and curling dark hair on his chest and privates, strong thighs and long, elegant feet. He shook back his tousled hair and strode across the open dirt of his back yard.
That was some secret he’d been hiding.
Frozen with shock, Cooley didn’t utter so much as a peep. The idea of a dangerous pet panther two houses down she could deal with. It was within the realm of possibility, something normal suburbanites would do. Run a sex line or a meth lab. Hoard newspapers. Keep exotic pets.
Evan Sabello was something else entirely. In the twenty seconds it took the man to disappear into his house, Cooley realized two things.
One, her own secret suddenly didn’t seem so unique.
Two, she really, really shouldn’t have asked to pet his panther.
Cooley didn’t fetch her cookie plate the next day, though she’d planned to. She was intimidated by Evan Sabello and leery of seeing him again. She didn’t even get dressed for work, she just pored over every Internet reference to shape changers, cat people, anything that might have escaped her notice in her predilection for everything feline.
She didn’t know if she should call a counselor or pray. This changed her entire worldview, everything she’d assumed. When evening arrived, though it was Wednesday, she didn’t even go to church.
Not that she thought shape changers were evil or unsanctioned by the Lord her Savior, but because she was bewildered. Never in her wildest dreams—okay, maybe her wildest ones—had she imagined she’d live next door to a leopard man. She’d chosen this suburb to buy her own house because it was conventional. Safe and predictable. Anything unusual would stand out like a car on cinder blocks, and she could find it before it found her.
Until now. Was there a werewolf down the street? A selkie in the split-level stucco with the grotto pool? What about the people who knew about these folk and hunted them? Where did they live? Everybody had to live somewhere.
She lived here. And she wanted to stay here.
Darkness fell, and Cooley rocked on her front porch and listened to the whir of crickets and voices of mothers and fathers calling their children for dinner. Her parents had called her once upon a time, and then her grandmother, and now she took care of herself.
She was alone in this world. Images of Evan churned her insides. Everything he’d done, every moment he’d held her gaze, became fraught with portent. What did leopard men do if they found a woman attractive? Would they approach her? Would they stalk her? What might they be like…in bed?
Would their shape changing abilities breed true or did it take two?
There was no way to know, based on her limited information. She had only half the story.
Cooley crossed her legs and smoothed her hands down her pajama bottoms, cotton shorts embellished by pink bunnies.
Leopards ate bunnies. Evan’s kind apparently kept them in cages in the back yard and scoured the local parks when they ran out at home. What was wrong with a quick run to Kroger when you got the urge for raw meat?
Her porch was in the perfect vantage point to observe the two squad cars pull up outside Evan’s house and four officers exit the cars. One had a sheaf of papers in hand—a search warrant? Two disappeared behind the house, trotting, and two onto the front porch.
He’d told her to never, ever come over at night because he’d be working. Busy. What was he doing in there, changing into fur, or out of it? If the police caught him, what in the world would they think? Or do?
A conversation between the police and whoever answered Evan’s door escalated to shouting. Lights up and down the lane popped on, and the neighborhood watch hit the porches and the street. Cooley eased into her yard, under the birch at the edge of her property.
In a few minutes, the shouting subsided and Evan was led to the car in cuffs. Furless and dressed. Shoes. Was his glower directed at her house or the world in general? A big cop put a hand on Evan’s head and urged him into the back of the cruiser.
Officer Mofield came around from the back. “Nothing,” she called. “Let’s get to the station and write him up for resisting. Maybe he’ll be willing to talk in the morning.”
The squad cars pulled away, barking their sirens to clear gawkers out of the street. Cooley watched their tail lights as they edged onto the main road and headed toward town.
The moon peeked past the horizon. Crazy theories that had no basis in her reality crossed her mind. Maybe Evan couldn’t control the change at night. Why else would he have been so vehement about never bothering him after hours? Maybe he was new at being a leopard and didn’t realize he ought to act…normal. Ought to live how normal people lived, socialize like normal people socialized. Hermits in upper Canada, for example, might be suspicious to anyone who knew about shape changers and hated them. Hunted them.
Killed them, however they could manage it, and conceal it as legitimate.
Not all children grew up with parents to love them and teach them. And sometimes parents taught their children the wrong things.
Well, Evan had the modest suburban location right, but he’d been as antisocial as a dog with rabies. His yard looked terrible. He ran loose at night. He kept animal cages in plain sight. Thanks to her, he was now in trouble with the police, though if it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone.
Maybe someone worse.
Cooley didn’t know if she could trust what she’d seen of Evan, what she was forced to guess, what she read online—or what her own knowledge and common sense told her. But then, she’d never expected Mr. Shabby Yard to have such…animal magnetism. She’d never expected anyone she met in her whole life to have that.
If there was any truth to her suspicion he wasn’t in full control of himself, she was the only person who could help. And if she helped him, he’d owe her.
Surely he wouldn’t bite the hand that freed him?
Cooley wrote a check for Evan’s bail and signed it with a flourish. “I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I found my panther this afternoon,” she said to Officer Mofield. Evan stared a hot hole in the back of her head, but she didn’t turn. “Did you know bobcats could grow to about forty pounds? Mrs. Grinfeld trapped one in her barn. Big paws on that guy. I’m so sorry about all this. I bet he smelled Evan’s bunnies.”
“Mr. Sabello is here for resisting arrest and threatening an officer with bodily harm. Mrs. G’s bobcat doesn’t get him off the hook.” Officer Mofield turned to Evan. “Sabello, don’t forget your court date.”
“He won’t,” Cooley agreed. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Officer Mofield raised an eyebrow at Cooley but kept talking to Evan. “And I trust I won’t see you here again unless you’re signing up for neighborhood watch.”
“You can count on that,” Evan said. Below the officer’s hearing, almost below Cooley’s hearing, Cooley could make out a low, rumbling growl. Or was it a purr?
“I’ll pay you back,” Evan said when they reached the car. He slid into Cooley’s red Mazda and folded his arms. He immediately kicked off his shoes, as did she. She tried to absorb every little detail about him. His scent, his sound, his posture, bristling with tension. No doubt he was worried about nightfall.
A different tension bubbled through her insides. She didn’t show it. No use giving him the upper hand.
“Seatbelts, please,” she said. “You could at least act like you’re grateful.” She pointed at the sky, at the sliver of moon on the horizon. “Another hour and I bet you’d have been a goner. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” Evan rasped. “You saved me from a night in jail. Nick of time, blah blah blah. How fast can we get home? I have stuff to do.”
Cooley ignored his sarcasm. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to keep a low profile and stay on the good side of the cops? I suspect a lot of hunters are connected with law enforcement. And you might want to do something about your yard.”
“My yard’s going to tip off hunters?” Evan said with a dry, disbelieving cough. “Why, will it attract deer and squirrels?”
So he was going to play this game. It was the wise choice when you didn’t realize someone could be trusted.
“No, but it looks terrible and brings down the property value of the neighborhood.” She grinned at him. “I’ve proven tonight why it’s smart to befriend your neighbors. Eat their cookies. Keep their secrets. Even when those secrets are dangerous and hairy.”
Evan’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t respond. He wasn’t stupid. Cooley could practically feel the wheels spinning in his brain. After they’d driven several blocks and halted at a red light, he cleared his throat.
“What do you think you know? About me, I mean?” They waited for the light to change, and Evan’s eyes narrowed. His pupils slitted as he inspected her. It was creepy to see a man’s eyes go catlike if you didn’t realize what he was.
Heck, it was creepy when you did realize what he was if it was something you’d never witnessed in someone else.
“I saw you.” Cars idled around them, full of normal people with normal lives.
Evan grunted. “Huh. You saw me?”
“At about four-forty-five a.m.”
“Ah.” He shifted in his seat. “And you’re not calling the tabloids or the government or something?”
“Absolutely not.” Cooley winked. “It’s our secret. The before and the after. I liked both, by the way.”
His cheekbones reddened as he caught her implication. “You shouldn’t have been able to see me in that form.” She knew he meant the cat and not his nude human gorgeousness. “Other people can’t when I don’t want them to.”
“Sam and Nala—that’s my cats—spotted you first,” she admitted. “Not much goes on in my neighborhood I don’t find out eventually.” She pressed her foot on the gas when the light flashed green, and they sped forward into the dark.
Evan leaned back in the seat and sighed. “I’m new at this. I feel like I need to be near people, but now that I’m different…” He ran a hand through his hair, tousling it more. “I’ve never met anyone like me except the one who did this to me. I thought we might be the only two in the world. I don’t know what to do.”
This was more like it. Evan, humble and grateful. Just the way a man should be.
“I know what you should do. You should take me out,” Cooley said. “Show me a good time.” Men like Evan—people like Evan—were next to impossible to find, even if you looked for them all your life.
“Not a chance. You got me arrested.” But his eyes glinted, and one corner of his mouth, the corner that told the truth, flicked upward like the tip of a cat’s tail.
“No, sir. Your bad temper got you arrested. You could have let them search your house. It’s not like you’re a selkie, where they could find your pelt. I, on the other hand, bailed you out.”
“And now you want something for it.”
She wanted something, all right. “If you’re worried I’ll blackmail you, you needn’t be. But I feel like the least you could do is introduce me to your…pet.”
Cooley smiled, and her front teeth sharpened. She tasted the wildness of change on her tongue. “If I like him, Evan, and I bet I will, maybe I’ll introduce you to mine.”
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