Haruto hissed between his teeth as he expended energy he couldn’t do without to heal a wound he shouldn’t have gotten. The woman — now Kosuke’s mate — had surprised him when she’d produced a weapon to slash his face. It hadn’t been deep and the wound was almost gone.
Pain had distracted him from his goal. A few more seconds and Kosuke would have arrived too late. Haruto would have claimed the potential as his own. He wouldn’t have cared about wounds and the gnawing, ever-present hunger that had him grinding his teeth until his jaw ached.
Leave, Haruto. There is nothing for you here. Tell the others the same.
Kosuke’s words echoed in Haruto’s mind, making Haruto yell curses at the void in which he traveled to return home — a journey that took longer than it should because of his waning power. Instead of moving from one place to another in the time it took him to draw breath, he had to cross the void the same way humans traversed great distances — slowly.
He’d had her. The potential should have been his. His haste had made him careless. The woman had thrown herself at him. If he hadn’t been so hungry, he could have played his part and had her begging for him to claim her.
“Damn the ancient elders.”
Haruto stared at his two remaining tentacles. Two! At one time, he’d had sixteen on the way to his seventeenth. He’d thought he would reach the coveted twenty long before the others of his generation. His haste to be best had led him to be stricken first — an example to all others of what was coming.
The best-kept secret of his kind would lead to his death. To what end? Their numbers were so few. Why kill the ones left? But the ancient elders probably hadn’t seen this curse as a death sentence. Starvation and eventual death were great motivators for finding a mate and procreating to strengthen their numbers. If the older generations had revealed the truth to Haruto and the others when the curse manifested, Haruto wouldn’t be so close to dying now. He wouldn’t have had to witness the death of his childhood friend.
Witnessing Shinji’s slow, painful deterioration after the last of his tentacles had faded had made everyone more desperate. Shinji hadn’t had many tentacles to start. He’d never gotten the same pleasure using his powers to draw human women to him as the others. His lackadaisical attitude toward growing his tentacles and his powers along with them — only having sex when he felt hungry — had doomed him.
The famine curse blocked the ability to feed and thus the body started to feed on itself. The more tentacles someone had, the better his chances of survival until he could find a potential mate who would break the curse and end his hunger. Shinji had had four tentacles when the curse struck him. Less than half a year later, he’d breathed his last labored breath before his body crumbled to dust.
The wails of Shinji’s mother’s anguish haunted Haruto still. Tachiko had been inconsolable, cursing Shinji’s father and berating him. At the time, Haruto couldn’t understand why Tachiko would blame her husband, but now he did. Mitsuo, Shinji’s father, had known. He could have helped his son, educated him, saved him. Instead, Mitsuo had let a centuries-old gag order kill his son and estrange him from his wife.
Haruto wouldn’t do the same to his parents. He wouldn’t die like that. He planned to outlive the oldest of his race by at least fifty years just so no one else would be able to top him after his death — a death that was two hundred plus years in coming. He would make sure of it.
There were other potential mates. If Kosuke had found one, Haruto could as well. Once Haruto found his mate and ensured his own survival, he would educate everyone else so no others would have to die in ignorance.
Except he didn’t know how Kosuke had found the potential. Haruto hadn’t sensed anything special about her — no scent, no aura, no distinctive trait that would lead him to others like her. Had Kosuke found her by chance?
That couldn’t be it. There had to be something more Haruto had yet to learn, some secret the ancient elders had hidden along with everything else. He would demand those answers of his father. No more silence. No more secrets.
Haruto had learned how to claim a mate by listening in when Kosuke’s father had taught Kosuke. Eavesdropping had also alerted Haruto to the potential mate Kosuke had left without claiming.
Cursing again, Haruto balled his fists at his side. He’d been so close. If only he’d acted faster, he could have —
The sudden, painful spasm that gripped his body halted Haruto’s thoughts and his forward momentum. The darkness of the void pressed in on him. He felt himself losing consciousness.
He didn’t have time to give in to weakness. He had to find a potential.
Before his waning vision, one of his two remaining tentacles faded and disappeared. He’d used too much energy trying to claim Kosuke’s potential and then transporting home. He’d taken a gamble and thus shortened his life when he’d lost.
The nothingness around him spun as vertigo hit him. He had to leave the void. Remaining was hastening his demise. If he passed out here, the void would siphon the last of his powers. He would die and no one would know.
He had to get out. First freedom, and then he would concentrate on finding another potential.
Haruto sank his teeth into his lower lip, using the pain to keep him lucid while he forced the void to set him free. He should have taken a plane home. The amount of time spent would have been the same, and he wouldn’t be in danger of losing his last tentacle. Without it he couldn’t claim the potential. Death was certain after that.
Not for him! He refused to die like that. Shinji had been weak. Haruto wasn’t. He was the strongest of his generation and he would prove it. His potential was waiting for him to claim her.
Summoning a burst of energy, Haruto punched through the void walls back into reality. Cool air kissed his hot, sweat-drenched skin and the sweet smell of lilacs greeted him as oblivion sucked him under. He couldn’t fight it any longer. At least he’d escaped the void. He wouldn’t die in his sleep.
* * *
Janine tossed aside her e-reader, careful to aim for the couch cushions. She’d read the same page ten times already. A second after reading a sentence she forgot what it said. After staring at it for so long, she couldn’t remember a single word.
She debated trying to watch a movie again but vetoed the idea since she didn’t feel like standing in front of her vast DVD collection in a hopeless attempt to figure out what she wanted to watch. Nothing interested her, and it was all Caleb’s fault.
If he hadn’t given her that stupid prediction, she would be happily reading the next book by her favorite author. She’d been saving the book for the weekend. Her friends had claimed her Saturday with an impromptu going away party for a friend, who was moving across the country to be with her new husband.
Sunday was supposed to be Janine’s day to read and veg and be lazy. A day all to herself where she didn’t worry about anything except how Logan — the bad boy of the last three books in her favorite series — would redeem himself to become a hero worthy of getting the girl.
Janine should be hanging on every word and holding her breath at every hint of peril until the last page. Instead, Caleb’s stupid prediction had her too anxious to read or do anything except sit on her couch and pick at her cuticles until they bled.
She dabbed the back of her thumb with a tissue before wrapping a bandage around the damage and moving to the next finger. “Stupid Caleb,” she grumbled.
He’d pulled her aside at last night’s party and said her dream man was coming. No, he’d said the man of her dreams and the man of her destiny were coming. Two different men headed her way and arriving on Sunday — some time in the late afternoon, possibly early evening. Caleb hadn’t been sure about details. He had been sure that it was up to her to choose.
Not only choose, but choose wisely, since one man would bring lasting happiness while the other would bring momentary gratification followed by heartache and betrayal. No pressure. It was only her future in the balance. And since it had been Caleb telling her this, she couldn’t discount it.
Caleb was a psychic. A real one. He even made money off it, though he hid behind an actress dressed up as a gypsy with a cheap crystal ball because his customers expected that. His psychic hotline phones stayed busy — manned by Janine and a few dozen other women he’d hired to read from prepared statements he provided — and he had appointments booked for six months out.
He tossed freebies Janine’s way on the odd occasion because they’d been friends since the womb — their mothers had been best friends since high school — and he still owed her for introducing him to his husband. She wished his debt had been paid in a less cryptic way.
Happiness or heartache. How was she supposed to know which man would bring what? Would they arrive holding signs? Probably not. That would be too easy. As well, Caleb would have been able to see which man was best for her. She knew her long-time friend wouldn’t want her hurt.
He’d been upset he couldn’t tell which man would lead to which outcome, but his powers didn’t work like that. He saw as far as important, life-altering choices. Once a choice was made, he could continue his prediction. So he would be able to tell her if she’d chosen the right man after her decision when it was too late to change her mind. He’d said the man she didn’t choose would disappear from her life forever.
Yup. No pressure. Absolutely none.
Her phone chimed, indicating a text message. She leaned forward on the couch, retrieved her phone, and then grinned.
Stop calling me stupid.
It was from Caleb. She brought up the reply window. Stop eavesdropping.
All their lives Caleb had always known when Janine was thinking about him or talking about him. Not only her, but anyone. It was how he was able to prepare predictions for callers and his appointments hours in advance of the person contacting him. He started each day typing up his predictions, delivered them to the shop, and then spent the rest of the day creating the charm bracelets his shop sold.
How are you holding up?
Janine stuck her tongue out at her phone. You already know the answer to that.
I’ll be fine. It’s just my future, right?
A few minutes passed before Caleb replied back. I’ve been trying to see more.
Janine’s eyes widened. She hit the speed dial for Caleb’s number and yelled the second he picked up, “Stop that before you give yourself a migraine.”
“No, I mean it, Caleb. Stop right now. You’ve given me enough. Leave it alone. You’re going to put yourself out of commission and have to reschedule all your appointments. Stop it.”
Any time Caleb strained to see beyond his capabilities he would pop a migraine that blocked his powers for a minimum of twenty-four hours. One time it had lasted for an entire week. Caleb had been devastated, thinking he’d lost his powers for good. They had cried together in relief when his powers returned. His paternal grandmother — the one from whom he’d inherited his gift — had smacked him on the back of the head and told him never to be so reckless again or he really might lose them for good.
Caleb sighed. “Okay.”
“Yeah. I’ll stop. But, Janine, I don’t like this. I can see the two paths. I can see what’s at the end of both paths. On one, you’re really happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen you. On the other” — he let out a hard sigh –”you’re crying and hurt and eventually settling for some guy who annoys the crap out of you but you two stay together because being alone sucks.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“I can see them both but I can’t see which man leads to what. I can’t see the men either.” He laughed without humor. “I can’t even give you the tall, dark and handsome spiel because I can’t tell you anything about how either man looks.”
“Caleb, I love you. You’ve given me way more than enough. The rest is up to me.”
“Right.” He didn’t sound convincing.
“Stop worrying about me and go focus on your own man. I want to see my godchild soon.”
“Janine, did you forget where babies come from?”
They laughed, breaking the tension and helping her relax. “Yes, I know, but I also know that you’ve shown me a lot of wacky shit in this world. Shit I didn’t know existed or could exist. I’m not totally convinced you and Roger can’t have kids. So hop to it.”
Caleb laughed louder. Roger’s muffled voice carried over the phone. It sounded as though he’d asked a question. Caleb called to him, “Janine wants us to start making babies.” He paused. “That’s what I told her but she says do it anyway.” He laughed again. “Janine, Roger says he’s willing to devote as much time as possible to making your wish come true. Thanks a lot.” Sarcasm coated his last statement.
She ignored it since she knew how much Caleb and Roger loved each other. She also knew they didn’t need any prompting from her to stay in bed all day. “You’re welcome. Bye, sweetie.”
“Call me after Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong show up. I want to do another reading for you.”
“Bye now. Roger says it’s baby-making time.”
Janine tapped the end call button. Her smile faded as the phone screen went blank. She wasn’t sure she wanted Caleb to do another reading after she made her choice. She didn’t want to know if she’d chosen wrong.
Some part of her knew she would. Without any clues on how to choose right, wouldn’t Murphy’s Law come into play? Anything that could go wrong would, and she would end up with a guy who would make her life miserable until he left or she left him, leading her to a loveless marriage to another man who would probably make her miserable until the day she died.
She sighed in resignation and frustration as she put her phone back on the coffee table. “Who said life was easy?”
Sitting back on the couch, she prepared to wait, knowing no entertainment would distract her until the men showed. For better or for worse, she —
“Holy shit!” Janine screamed and jumped onto her couch as a giant, dark purple something appeared out of thin air and crashed onto her coffee table, smashing it.
It groaned, sighed, and then sagged.
Janine stared at the thing, waiting for it to do something else. It didn’t move except for the rise and fall of its body as it breathed.
Going slowly, and ready to bolt if the moment warranted it, she inched toward the thing. She couldn’t begin to guess what it was. It had wings like a bat and a long, thin tail. Other features were hidden because it had wrapped itself in a cocoon created by its wings.
She reached for it, her fingers shaking. “Hello?” Her voice was barely a whisper. She swallowed and tried again. “Hello?”
Banging on her door sent her back onto the couch and half over it. She stared at the purple bat and then at the door. The noise didn’t rouse it but almost gave her a heart attack.
She rushed to the door, slipped the chain in place, and then opened it. “Yes?”
The man on the other side said, “I’m Taylor, from the apartment below you. I heard something hit the floor and you screamed. Are you okay?”
Janine stopped herself from looking over her shoulder. She did notice the setting sun in the distance. Taylor from downstairs was standing on her welcome mat. Alone. There was no one else with him. Could the thing behind her be a man? Were these the two men Caleb had mentioned — the man of her dreams and the man of her destiny?
She had definitely been dreaming about Taylor. He didn’t need to introduce himself. She’d known his name since the day he’d moved in. He was a personal trainer and had a body that showed it. The man exuded perfect, from his soft-looking brown hair to his designer-footwear-clad feet. She’d spent many a night fantasizing about Taylor personally training her body with a strict exercise regime of sex, sex and more sex.
“I’m fine,” she said in a breathy voice.
“You’re sure?” He lowered his voice while glancing over her head a few times. “This is a rough neighborhood. If you need something, you just have to say so.” He held out his hand, keeping it low so her body blocked it from view if someone were behind her.
He must think someone was in the apartment with her.
There was someone there, but Taylor must think the person was threatening her. He was offering her a lifeline. If she took his hand, would he burst past the chain and rush to the rescue?
But rescue her from what?
This had to be it. The choice. Did she let Taylor in and show him her uninvited guest or did she send him away to deal with the other man alone? She didn’t know anything about the purple thing sleeping on her ruined coffee table, except that he wasn’t human. That much was obvious.
But she didn’t know much about Taylor either beyond his banging body and his profession. They had never spoken. If he were an everyday human who didn’t know about the things going bump in the night being real, he would freak out seeing the one in her living room. Or he could be a human who felt the bumping things should be eradicated from the Earth.
Thanks to her stint as Caleb’s friend, she’d run into more than her share of those idiots — humans who thought anyone not completely human was an abomination to be destroyed. They were the reason Caleb handled his business the way he did, so they would never find out he was a real psychic and try to kill him.
Beyond crushing her coffee table and passing out, the man in her living room might not be a threat. His entrance had to mean he was in distress. If that was the case, she would feel bad handing him over to people who might hurt him.
Smiling wide for Taylor, she said, “I’m a klutz. I tripped and fell on my coffee table. Sorry about the noise.”
“Really?” He didn’t appear convinced.
Be still her heart. He was the knight in shining armor type. Was she sure? She looked at his hand. If Taylor was dream man, that meant destiny man was behind her. Which did she want — a dream or her destiny?
“Yeah. Nothing to worry about. I’m fine. The coffee table is old and snapped like nothing. I was more startled than anything else.”
Taylor stared at her eyes for a few breaths before he relaxed and smiled back at her. “Oh, okay. Just glad you’re okay.”
“Thanks for checking. It’s nice to know someone is looking out for me.”
“Sure thing. Though I won’t be able to for much longer. My lease is up this month, so I’m moving.”
“Oh? Well it was nice meeting you finally, even if you are leaving soon.” She shook his hand and found she had to force herself to let go. He was leaving. Caleb had said the man she didn’t choose would leave her life forever. She and Taylor weren’t friends or even passing acquaintances. Once he moved, she would lose touch with him.
He said, “Same here. Have a good night.”
She waved as he walked to the stairs and descended out of her life.
Janine closed the door, turned the lock, and then faced the man she’d chosen. A sigh left her lips. “I gave up Lancelot for Batman. I need my head checked.”
The purple, winged man had slept through the entire exchange. She needed to wake him up and get him off her coffee table before he hurt himself.
She walked over to him and crouched down, placing her hand on where she thought his shoulder should be. “You better be the right one or else I’m going to give as good as I get before you run out on me.”
The man’s wing whipped back and he lifted his head, staring at her with glowing eyes. His sudden movements made Janine fall onto her ass with a startled yelp. She started to crab-walk backwards but the man grabbed her ankle and held her as he crawled over her.
He surged forward, pressing his face into the crotch of her sweatpants and pushing the fabric against her pussy, and then inhaled deeply. “Potential,” he ground out in a rasping, accented voice.
“What? Potential what? What are you talking about? Let go.”
Her plan to kick free of him ended when he reached under her, grabbed the waist of her sweatpants, yanked them down to mid-thigh along with her panties, and then used them as a handhold to lift her legs so her knees touched her chest. It happened too fast for Janine to do more than utter a surprised squeak before her slit was bared to the man’s hungry gaze.
“Potential.” He spread her slit with his free hand. “Mine.”
“What? I’m not –”
His mouth landed on her spread pussy, licking and sucking at her clit. Janine panted hard as bolts of pleasure shot through her. The soothing smell of fresh running water calmed her despite the weirdness of the situation. She didn’t question it. A man who kissed this well didn’t need to give answers, only satisfaction. This had to be the momentary gratification Caleb had mentioned.
Yup. She’d made the wrong choice after all.