I thought I’d write a story with a little magic in it for Halloween:
Zephyra frowned when Conan walked into her eatery for the fourth day in a row. Why wasn’t he at his own restaurant serving the lunch crowd? He got in line and approached the buffet, studying the specials for the day. Three choices of sandwiches, three soups, and three salads. When he reached her, he ordered the turkey with cranberry sauce on sourdough bread.
“That’s what Jane always orders.” Jane was his elderly relative, and she was sitting at a round table for eight with her friends.
“I know. And she always chooses the minestrone soup and chopped salad—her favorite Thursday specials—so I will, too. I figure if I come here enough, maybe she’ll notice me, and maybe you’ll stop by my pizzeria some night for supper.”
She didn’t see that happening. She knew he was interested in her and didn’t want to encourage him, but the man sure was tempting.
When she only smiled, his dark eyes sparkled with amusement. “I’ve lived long enough to love a challenge.”
She’d probably lived as long as he had and knew how to resist one.
He waited for an answer, and when he didn’t get one, said, “Okay, no reply. I can take a hint. I’m going to move down the line and leave you alone.”
Her young sous chef blushed with pleasure when he went to her station. Drop dead gorgeous, he could charm with an offhand smile, and he’d definitely charmed Kaylee. He looked back at Zephyra. “Just remember, if you ever stop in for supper, it’s my treat.”
He owned one of the best pizza restaurants in town. People drove from far and wide to try his pies. Food critics compared him to New York and Chicago. But then, he’d lived in both cities in previous lifetimes. Italy, too. He’d had plenty of time to perfect his products. So had she.
She raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t coming for lunch just to see me, are you?”
His lips curled into a seductive smile. “Why not? But I might have an ulterior motive. Jane comes here every day. She likes and trusts you. If she sees me with you, she might actually talk to me someday.” He was hundreds of years older than his relative and had kept track of her. The old woman had a zest for life, but when he’d tried to bond with her, she’d shooed him away, didn’t trust “young” men who were attentive to old women. Little did she know.
Zephyra appreciated that he wanted to be there for Jane in her later years, so decided to help if she could. “I’ll come sit at your table for a while. If Jane sees us together, she might give you a chance.”
His smile grew. “You have a soft spot for her, too. Thank you.”
He looked too pleased with himself. She had a vague feeling she’d just been out maneuvered. Was he here to get closer to Jane, or had he thought of a way to get closer to her, too?
Zephyra nodded to Kaylee. “He wants minestrone.”
“Trying to get rid of me. I get it.” He looked amused as he turned to Kaylee. “What have you got for me today?”
The girl’s blush deepened. Only twenty, she was in culinary school with big dreams of becoming a celebrity chef. “You ordered minestrone, right?”
“I grew up in Italy as a boy,” Conan told her. “Your soup looks like something my mother would have made.”
“Zephyra taught me how to make it.” Kaylee ladled it into a cup and passed it to him. There was no way she could know Conan was a boy hundreds of years ago, and his mother might still be alive. He moved his tray to the salad section where Trent waited on him. The young man had a frown pulling at his brows as he glanced at Conan.
“Is something wrong?” Conan asked.
“It’s probably nothing, but the guy at table three keeps staring at Kaylee. He’s been here a few times lately, and it’s like he’s obsessed. I don’t like the way he looks at her.”
Conan turned to study the customer, then glanced at Zephyra. He nodded to the man. “Is he a regular?”
Zephyra shook her head. “He only started to come recently.”
Conan ordered the chopped salad, then returned to where Zephyra stood. “He doesn’t take his eyes off Kaylee. When she goes home, does she have a roommate? Someone she lives with?”
“No, she’s alone in a small apartment a few blocks from here.”
“Close to us? We should keep an eye on her.” Conan lived above his pizzeria, and she lived above the eatery.
Zephyra bit her bottom lip, nervous now, too. The man’s gaze was too intense. “I’ll come sit with you the minute the line slows down. We’ll talk.”
With a nod, Conan went to the cash register to pay for his food, then found a small table near the man who only focused on Kaylee. The man ate slowly, only taking a bite of food occasionally. He had a newspaper that he glanced at now and then as if he’d come here for a leisurely lunch.
When the line of customers slowed down, Zephyra handed over the buffet to her assistants and went to sit with Conan. “What do you think?”
“He’s making me worry.”
They were both studying him when Jane and her group of friends rose from their table to leave. Jane stopped when she saw Zephyra sitting with Conan. She frowned. “This young man approached me, but he was a stranger. I shooed him away. Do you know him, dear?”
“Yes, he’s a friend. Actually, he has family connections to you. That’s one of the reasons he came here. To meet you.”
Jane turned a sharp eye on him. “Really? Are you a distant relative?”
“Very distant, but I heard about you, and since we live in the same city, thought I’d look you up.”
Jane gave a naughty smile. “And I told you that I don’t trust young men who try to charm old women.”
Conan laughed. “Something like that. But I understood where you were coming from.”
Zephyra motioned for Jane to join them, and she did, taking the seat across from Conan. “Explain yourself. How are we related?”
“Your grandfather was a distant relative of my mother. Sort of complicated.”
Jane gave him a look. “I study genealogy. Did you know our local library is one of the best in the country?”
“I did, but I have a family Bible that lists everyone with a bloodline to me. So, I wanted to meet you.”
Jane’s gaze rested on him, her expression thoughtful. “Are you part of the Bianco family?”
Conan hesitated. “Have you heard of us?”
“An ancient family. My great-grandfather told me about you. You visited him before he died.”
“Someone in my family did,” Conan said, correcting her.
She shook her head. “No, it was you. You visit everyone in your bloodline when their time is near. My grandfather, my father, my mother…You come to comfort them, to be with them. They all talked about you. Grandma thought you were our family’s guardian angel.”
He glanced sideways at Zephyra. “I’m no angel. My parents taught me that family was everything, to respect my heritage.”
Jane cocked her head to the side, contemplating him. “A kind thought. How long do I have? I’d rather do something fun with you than have you sit by my hospital bed.”
Conan grew serious. “You’re the last of our line. You never married, never had children. Neither did your brother.”
Jane waved that away. “You’re still alive. Why not make children of your own?”
Conan’s eyebrows shot up, surprised by her directness. “No one will have me.”
With a snort, Jane waved that away. “You came a month before my brother died. He was gay, you know. He had such a crush on you. He gushed on and on about you.”
Conan stumbled for a minute, then said, “Did I make his last days better?”
“You’ve made all of my family’s last days better. You’ve always been there for us. You even offered money that some of us didn’t have for funerals and gravesites. Over and over again, one generation after another, you came. You’re as handsome as everyone said.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
Jane nodded at Zephyra. “Why aren’t you trying to charm our wonderful chef? You and she would make beautiful babies.”
Zephyra’s jaw dropped. “Jane!”
The old woman chuckled, pleased with herself. “Yes, dear? And may I ask how old you are? I’ve come here for fifteen years, and you haven’t aged a day.”
Uh-oh. She might have to move soon. “Great beauty products.”
“If you say so, but you and your friend both look thirty. Probably have for a long time. You seem like kind people, or…whatever you are, so why not connect and find happiness together?”
“We only met a short time ago.” Conan wouldn’t mention they came together watching over her. “Right now, we’re trying to decide if the man at the table by the wall is a stalker. He never takes his eyes off Kaylee.”
Jane turned to look at him. He must have felt their gazes on him, because he caught them staring and stood to leave.
Conan waited for him to walk out the door before he stood, too. “I’m going to follow him. If he goes to his car, maybe I can get his license number. Don’t save my lunch for me, but you owe me a meal, Zephyra.”
Jane watched him go. “He’s a protector. You could do worse than him.”
“I’m happy with my life just the way it is.” But Zephyra was impressed that he’d go out of his way for Kaylee.
“Safe is nice, but you have a chance for so much more.” She patted Zephyra’s shoulder before leaving, too.
Zephyra headed to the kitchen. She, Kaylee, and Trent cleaned together, and after they left, she stayed to bake fresh bread for tomorrow’s sandwiches. She didn’t climb the steps to her apartment until after five.
Someone banged on her door at six. She was stretched on her couch, reading a book, but got up to see who was there. She cracked the door to find Conan holding a covered, foil pan, grinning at her.
“You owe me a meal, remember? But I brought one to share. Chicken alfredo from my restaurant. I can tell you about your mystery man while we eat.”
She was curious what he’d found out, so opened the door and invited him in. Conan headed straight to the kitchen and set the pasta dish on her counter. He lifted the box on top of it. “Salad.” He put a bag next to it. “Bread sticks.”
The aroma of cream sauce and garlic filled the room, and Zephyra realized she was starving. She’d only had a cup of soup and nibbled on salad at lunch.
When she licked her lips, Conan lifted the foil to dish up. “It’s as good as it smells. I’ve had years to perfect the recipe.”
She didn’t doubt that, so went to a cabinet and pulled out two plates. Ten minutes later, they were seated at the long, narrow table that separated her kitchen and living room, eating and sipping wine.
“This is really good,” she told him, mopping the last of the sauce from her plate.
He leaned back in his chair and emptied his wine glass. “The man didn’t lead me to his car this afternoon. He walked straight to a condo near the riverwalk and disappeared inside the building. He had to use a code, so he must live there.”
“He never noticed you following him?”
“All he saw was a black dog. A few people tried to catch me, but they were easy to dodge. I’m not sure he’d have noticed anyway. People stepped aside when they saw him, he looked so angry and upset. I think we spooked him enough that he might make a move of some kind.”
“Should we call the police?”
“And tell them what? He hasn’t done anything. I’m going to shift again and keep watch on him tonight. I just hope I can stay awake.”
“I’ll come with you. We can take turns napping if we have to.”
“You have to work tomorrow. I can sleep in and let my assistant run the lunch crowd.”
“I’ll pull on my magic for energy. I want to help keep Kaylee safe.”
“Okay, then. When do you want to leave?”
“Now.” The air was nippy but not cold. She waved her hand to lock her door when they stepped outside, then they headed to an alley across from the man’s condo.
He shifted first, his body stretching and morphing, then her body shrank to become a white cat. They padded to the front of the alley, where they could hide in the shadows to watch the man’s condo, and laid down together to stand guard.
The sun set. Even with fur, they moved closer together to keep warm. The feel of Conan stretched beside her was reassuring. She snuggled closer. Stars sparkled above them before the man left his condo and began to walk to where Kaylee lived. They followed him. He stood outside her apartment building, looking up at her window, for a long time. There was no movement, no hint that she was home. Finally, the man left the shadows to venture inside the building. They ducked in after him before the door shut behind him. He never looked back, going straight to the stairs.
They watched him climb the steps to Kaylee’s floor and followed discreetly. He knocked on her door, waited, but no one answered. He paced for a while before going to the end of the hallway where a heavy drape was pulled across a deep window. He slid behind the thick material, disappearing.
Conan nodded to the window at the other end of the long hall. Sliding behind its drape, they jumped to stretch on the deep window ledge. They were smashed even closer to each other with the limited space. Conan curled around her, and she fell asleep.
Footsteps woke her. She blinked awake and stretched a paw to look through a crack in the curtain. Kaylee was home and turning a key in her apartment door when the man rushed at her from his hiding spot. She turned and gave a small squeal when he barreled into her and knocked her inside the foyer.
Conan sprang into action immediately and raced to the open door. She streaked after him. The man had Kaylee pinned to the wall and his hands were groping her body. He stopped and stiffened when he heard the low growl behind him. Turning, he jerked with alarm when he saw Conan baring his teeth.
He shoved away from Kaylee and spread his arms, smiling. “Nice dog. Everything’s fine.” He reached into a pocket, and his hand gripped the handle of a small gun.
Zephyra launched herself at him, screeching and scratching. She clung to his shoulder, digging her sharp claws into his face. He was fighting her off when Conan sank his teeth into his shin. The man yowled and tried to shake him off, too, while Kaylee called 911.
The man was still struggling with them when the police arrived. The minute they stormed through the door, Conan and she raced out of it. They ran down the stairs and out of the building.
They waited in an alley across the street until the police led the man to a squad car, his hands cuffed behind him. Then they sauntered down alleyways back to her apartment. Shifting before she waved the door open, they climbed the steps to her private residence.
Conan’s nose was bleeding where the man had kicked at him to stave off his attack. Zephyra’s neck was encircled in red where he’d tried to grab her to toss her off him. They headed to the bathroom to treat their wounds. They’d be gone by morning, their magic healing them faster than usual. But they were really uncomfortable now.
Conan got his bleeding stopped and helped her smear ointment on the back of her neck. They were both tired. He turned to her with a smile. “Thanks for going with me. I’m going home now so you can get some sleep.”
She reached for his hand. “I’d sleep sounder with you next to me.”
He went still, staring at her. “Are you sure?”
“We make a good match, a black dog and a white cat, like yin and yang.”
He pulled her to him and bent to kiss her. Jane’s words flitted through her mind. “Safe is nice, but you have a chance for so much more.” So true. She and Conan could have many happy lifetimes together.