Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shadow Cat by Zoe LaPage

Shadow Cat by Zoe LaPage
February, 2008 - ISBN 978-1-59426-848-9
$6 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!
New Phaze Author!


A cry pierced the night. I froze and listened. Silence. There it was again. An unmistakably human shriek echoed from behind me. Then footsteps I could barely hear crunched leaves and twigs with a terrible slowness. Where could I hide?

My heart pounded as I pushed on the massive gate into the maze-like garden, and it swung open. When I stepped through, thick clouds covered the moon, plunging the landscape into darkness. I shivered and crouched behind the rock barrier of the fence feeling like a small wounded bird. The sound seemed to have stopped, but could some killer be waiting outside?

After a fat raindrop licked my cheek, I tilted my head back to see that the saturated sponge of a sky would let loose at any moment.

With the landscape growing ever more ominous, I rose and peered around each corner, expecting something to jump out at me. An ivy griffin perched on a high plateau looked as though he would swoop down to peck out my eyes. Bats, swans and tigers joined him, so detailed, so lifelike, they gave the impression of real creatures frozen in time.

Off in the distance, the stormy sky silhouetted a chateau, more Medieval-looking than most. Its turrets and pointed gables made me wonder if some mysterious count lived there.

A gust of air churned leaves and petals into a slow swirl, and I froze at the sound of footsteps on the other side of the hedge.

An immense black cat rounded the corner and stared at me with wide, brown eyes, its ears bent back in agitation. My heart pounded and my skin prickled. No doubt about it, he was a full-grown panther. I stared at the unusual four-pointed white star on the bridge of his nose and wondered if this deadly animal had killed someone. Standing still as death, I prayed he wouldn't attack me.

Crouched like a tight coil ready to spring, the cat glared at me.

I held my breath and looked into his eyes. A feeling of recognition passed between us, as though I'd known him before. His eyes looked so familiar. Perhaps because he reminded me so much of Onyx, my own cat I had to leave at home. After that, his body relaxed and his face softened. He tilted his head and eyed me curiously.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a dangerous animal, not my own beloved Onyx. Still, I decided to talk to him. "Hi there. You're a beautiful cat."

His ears perked up and he raised his nose. You are beautiful, too.

Had he said something? No, it must have been my imagination, but least he was starting to look friendlier.

His eyes brightened as he rose and stepped forward with small, cautious steps. His nostrils flared as he rubbed his face against my thigh.

I carefully reached one hand out to pet him and at first he reacted by flinching, but when I scratched him behind the ear he emitted a rich, vibrating purr.

I'd like more of that.

Had he said something again?

The cat stood back and looked up at me with all-too-human eyes.

What in the world was a panther doing in the Loire Valley? It had to be somebody's exotic pet. When I patted his head, he reared and bumped my hand with a contained wildness.

The cat stood on his hind legs, placed his huge paws gently on my shoulders and looked into my eyes as though he wanted to hug me. As he settled his considerable weight upon me, graceful as a ballet dancer, my fear melted into astonishment.

The wind gusted and raindrops splashed down on both of us. "Looks like the storm's kicking up, so I think I should go."

With his paws still on my shoulders, the panther nuzzled my neck then dropped back to the ground and scampered toward the house. Reaching the shadows, he paused and glanced at me.

I turned to leave when the padding of feet, quiet as a whisper, sounded in back of a hedge. I heard a low growl and froze, hoping that whatever it was would go away. A pair of glowing yellow eyes radiated out from the foliage. I gasped.

A different panther crept out from behind a maze of bushes. The animal bent his ears back and hissed, exposing razor-like incisors. His menacing stare never left me as he moved into a crouched position as though stalking prey. My heart thumped in my ears.

I inched backward, watching him snarl and hunch low to the ground. His eyes grew big and his ears bent forward. He emitted the human-like scream I'd heard earlier, shook his hindquarters, gave a mighty leap and pounced directly on me. His full weight knocked me backward, sending an ice pick of pain through my head as it smashed against the ground.

Though stunned, I did my best to wrestle with the powerful cat. I grabbed his neck, desperate to strangle him, but his muscles and tendons were bands of steel. He clawed the top of my shoulder, tearing my blouse, and nicked me with his sharp teeth giving me a swift, stabbing pain. I felt his hot breath on my neck.

Just as I thought he'd sink his fangs into my flesh and devour me, something knocked his body to the side with the force of a cyclone.

I watched breathless as the panther with the white star pounced on my attacker and fought. The two bodies tumbling over and over each other in the grass, contorting into a brawling mass. One of the panthers chomped into its opponent's neck and I heard the wet, meaty rip of flesh tearing from bone. The injured panther ran off and jumped over a tall hedge, while the other stared into the distance.

I strained to see in the darkness and rain. Was that the good cat or the bad? If the bad panther had won, he would return to finish me off. Slowly, I rose and started to back off, but the garden swirled on me and I fell back down. I regained my focus and riveted my gaze on the remaining cat. He turned, still in the shadows and padded closer, panting.

There it was: the white star on his nose. I exhaled. Before I could thank him, the cat took a final look at me and leapt into the shrubbery.

Now I had to control my shaking, gather myself up and head back home in the drizzling rain. Blood seeped through the tears in my clothing, and my chin stung with scratches. I sucked in several deep breaths. I could do this.

A naked man ran toward me from the direction of the house, and I screamed. No doubt I was hallucinating from the bump on my head. Even in the dim moonlight I saw that he was splendid--tall with long, dark hair and muscles like Michelangelo's vision of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Dreamy and hazy, I couldn't look away. Gracious, he was gorgeous.

Then my hallucination spoke. "Mademoiselle, you are all right?" His voice was soft and deep with a French accent.

"That panther mauled me." I clasped my shredded blouse together with one hand.

He leaned over me and helped me up, supporting my trembling body with a sculpted arm. This was definitely real.

"I am so sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I keep a few unusual pets and sometimes they get out of hand."

"Out of hand? I could have been killed."

"Let me take you to my house to tend your wounds." Unselfconscious about his nakedness, he scooped me up and cradled me in his arms.

"Put me down," I said, part of me wanting the handsome stranger to do nothing of the sort.

"I don't want to take the chance of having you faint; I must get you in out of this rain."

"No, wait. I don't know you, and I'm not going with you into your house." I pushed at his steel-like arm.

"Mademoiselle, I assure you that you are in no danger whatsoever. I feel responsible for your safety."

"But..."

"No buts." He winked at me, grasped me more firmly and carried me up a flagstone path and through a sunroom that housed a jungle of lush, tropical plants. After passing through many great chambers, a library, a music room with grand piano, and a dining room that looked as though it would seat hundreds of white tie dinner guests, we came to a comfortable sitting room. I wondered if any of his other pets might come after me in this labyrinth of a house.

He lowered me onto a velvet couch, gently lifted my head and placed pillows beneath it. "Excuse my state of undress. I was getting ready for bed when I heard you scream. Please, remain here for a moment while I clothe myself and find something to put on your wounds." He spoke with impeccable English, yet, the enticing accent assailed my ears.

I forced myself to look into his eyes and not at other portions of his anatomy. After he turned to walk out, I indulged myself with a long glance at his rock-hard derriere. Amazing. He wasn't so bad. He was being a gentleman after all, despite his lack of clothes. I examined my wounds, relieved that the scratches seemed minor.

While he was gone, I assessed some of the Egyptian artifacts in his sitting room. A gold sculpture of a cat sitting upright with the Eye of Horus on his chest held a prominent position on top of the bookcase. The man had high quality reproductions; that was for sure.

Fascinated, I sat up and reached for a rough, brown pot ringed with Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols. A chill ran through me as I examined the markings on the underside. Lord, the vessel was real! From my background at the Smithsonian I knew by the color and material that they'd probably been found in an archeological dig. I'd spent months tucked away in studios restoring just such pieces. How could they be so free of damage? And how could an individual own such valuable artifacts?

"That was taken from the tomb of King Ramesis II."

He startled me, causing the bowl to slip out of my hand. I pictured it crashing to the floor in splintered pieces.

He flew to my side, caught the bowl and smiled at me. For a moment, our hands touched as he pressed the ancient vessel back toward me.

"I'm sorry. I thought you'd take a little longer to get dressed," I said. "You startled me."

"I'm quick when I have a lovely Mademoiselle waiting for me, especially one who had been trounced by one of my cats." He smiled, looking dazzling in black pants and a white, silky shirt.

"How is it that you have these amazing treasures in your house?"

"They can be bought for a price. Ancient Egyptian art is one of my fascinations, so I indulge myself."

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Pardon. Je suis Jules Valdrome. I'm an architect and this is my home, Fontrevault."

His alluring French accent, deep and smooth, raced my pulse. "I'm Isabelle."

"Isabelle. Pleased to meet you, Isabelle." He took my hand and kissed it.

Jules' touch sent a tingle through my body. I forced myself out of the thrall that threatened to take over my mind and pulled my hand away. "How can you have wild cats on your property? Do you have permits? I'm going to call the police when I get back."

"I assure you that I have all necessary permits, and there is no need to call the police. Now, let me tend your scratches." He retrieved a bottle and some gauze from the other room, placed it on the coffee table, then sat on the couch next to me.

"Your cat could have killed me." I gathered the torn portion of my blouse so it wouldn't open up all the way. Thank goodness I'd been wearing a bra.

"I'm so sorry for your distress. Will you let me take a look?"

I hesitated for a moment, then let go of my top.

He inspected the scratches, touched the skin around them ever so softly with his forefinger. "I see that they are not deep. The cat must have had his claws retracted when he pounced on you, otherwise you'd be shredded. Thank God you were not badly injured."

The gentleness of his hands ... I imagined him caressing my body in the dark on warm soft sheets.

Stop that. What was I thinking? For God's sake, I'd just been mauled and my mind was in the bedroom. "I should go to a doctor. What if they get infected or the cat was rabid?"

"I can assure you, my cats are not diseased--they receive better health care than most humans--but if it would make you feel better, I'll drive you into town. I get scratched by them all the time and I know that my herbal mixture will have your cuts nearly healed by morning."

"Really? You have a healing compound that's that good?"

"Yes, an old family recipe." Jules paused. "He didn't bite you, did he?"

"No, just scratched me."

"You'll be fine then. I am confident of this." He moved closer.

"I don't understand." I looked into his soft eyes. "That cat could have ripped my throat out with one swipe, but he didn't. Cats' instincts are to kill their prey."

"Ah, but they like to play with them first." He smiled slightly. "For a long time."

Jules' words made me quiver, but not in a bad way.

"May I treat your wounds with my herbal mixture now?"

"All right." I relaxed and allowed him to put the ointment on me. One set of scratches ran diagonally across my upper chest and one across my abdomen. "You shouldn't have those cats out where they can attack people."

"Yes, I agree, but you were in my private garden. One might even say you were trespassing." He scowled but looked at me out of the corner of his eye in a way that told me he wasn't exactly angry with me.

"Cats like that can easily jump your wall. They could be a hazard to anyone in the area."

"I assure you, they are under control now."

"That's no excuse. You have dangerous animals running around."

He placed one finger on the side of my face and turned it. "That is a nasty scrape on your chin." He blotted the broken skin with the ointment.

I jumped at the initial sting, then relaxed. "The cat with the white star was beautiful, though."

"You liked him?" He smiled, put some of the medication on a sterile pad and carefully patted the scratches on my stomach. "He is my favorite, too."

The way he touched me so intimately made my heart pound and my skin heat up. "I love cats," I said. "When I was little, my pet Jasmine led me out of the forest when I was lost. He may have saved my life."

"Vraiment? Oui, cats are more intelligent than people give them credit for." He dabbed my chest, then pulled my blouse a little farther down.

My face felt hot, and I wrapped my arms around myself. "I think that's enough now."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be too familiar."

I nearly lost myself in his soft, brown eyes with their unusual green flecks. I imagined myself kissing his long, black lashes, nibbling on his ears, trailing my tongue down his neck.

I shook myself out of my reverie. Even though he hadn't done anything threatening, my trepidation about being alone with a man I didn't know suddenly returned to me with full force. He acted nice and friendly, but in this isolated chateau, he could do anything he wanted to me and no one would know.

"I have to go." I started to rise from the couch, but he looked into my eyes and gently pushed me back down.

"Relax for a moment. I'll drive you home soon."

A feeling of calm washed over me. Those unusual eyes of his had mesmerized me.

"Are you new to this area? Visiting?" he asked.

"Actually, I just arrived in the Loire Valley this morning to restore one of the most important discoveries in the art world today--a Fran├žios Clouet mural that was painted directly onto one of the walls of Chateau Limoges. A previous owner covered it with plaster, if you can imagine that."

"Mon Dieux! Difficult to believe anyone would be so insensitive to great art. Clouet was court painter to Fran├žios I in the sixteenth century at Tours, n'est ce pas?"

"Yes. I'm impressed with your knowledge, Jules."

"My family history in this region goes back to the thirteenth century," he said, peering at me as though trying to gauge my reaction.

"Getting to restore this fresco is just the kind of change and excitement I need in my life." I sat up straight and slid away from him on the couch. He seemed a little too close. "I haven't met the owner, Monsieur Carnot, yet. He had his business associate come to interview me. I don't know very much about him except that he's incredibly wealthy, and he commissioned me for a one-year project."

"His taste in chateau restoration leaves a bit to be desired, but I'll let you discover all of that for yourself. He seems to be a pleasant enough man." Jules rose and walked over to the sideboard. "May I interest you in some cognac?"

I hesitated.

"It's a very good year." He gave me a sexy look and held the bottle out for me to examine.

"All right. Thank you."

He poured the burgundy liquid into two small crystal glasses.

I thanked him and waited while he sat down next to me.

"A toast. To the success of your art project and to a memorable stay in the Loire Valley."

"Yes, cheers." We clinked glasses and I took a small sip. "Back to Mr. Carnot, I did notice from the restoration work he has completed that he freely mixes modern with French provincial."

"He mixes the styles quite well, as well as can be expected." Jules swished his cognac around in its snifter and slid closer. "You must have walked quite a distance to have happened upon my garden."

I edged away. Even though he was gorgeous, he was getting a little too familiar, too soon. After I knew him better, it might be another story. "I did walk quite a distance. I love the moonlight, and these gardens are so magical. I got carried away."

"I'm glad you got carried away." He put his cognac down and massaged my hand.

I pulled back. "It's getting late. I'd better be going home."

"Please, let me drive you." He nodded his head toward me. "I am at your service."

I didn't know if I trusted him to drive me home, but I wasn't about to walk through his yard and get attacked again. "What other dangerous pets do you have?"

"None, I assure you, and as I have said, the big cats have all been put to bed. There is no cause to worry."

"I think it's stopped raining." I rose and carefully placed my half-finished glass of cognac on the end table. "Would you take me home?"

"I'd be happy to. Let me get you a jacket."

He walked into the other room and returned with a wool blazer that he draped over my shoulders.