“So selling off all my furnishings only netted seven hundred dollars?”
Marvin snorted at Russell. “Seven hundred twenty-eight dollars and thirty-six cents. And don’t make it sound like that’s not a lot, especially for a man whose current cost of living appears to be zero a month. And arranging all that on such short notice was a lot of work. You’re welcome.”
They sat under a thatched canopy, facing Palekaiko’s beach, watching the islanders set up a celebration. The sun had almost touched the tops of the trees to the west, and a blazing fire raged in a stone-ringed pit. The carnage of two weeks before had been cleared away. Fortunately, there had been no fatalities among the dozens of casualties among the otters. As best as Danny had been able to confirm, two of Bennett’s people hadn’t made it. Kailani had met that news with stoic silence.
The barge owners had paid to salvage the vessels, with the bills going to Bennett Partners. (Or, as Marvin had pointed out, their insurance company—although whether the policy covered Acts of Giant Otter would be a matter for lawyers.) The remains of the hotel were gone except for the concrete foundation, now largely obscured by windblown sand.
While Danny had managed to salvage Russell’s bag, the cougar had taken to wearing just a pair of shorts made for him by one of the islanders. Marvin, naturally, managed to somehow look like he belonged, with shorts and a loose shirt he must have picked up in Honolulu.
“Thank you. And you’re right. But I’m going to need to fund my new job for a while.”
“New job?” He looked around. “I thought you were staying here.”
“I am. I’m going to pick up where the researchers left off, recording the tribe’s histories.”
“Oh! I see.” He sipped at the coconut water they both had glasses—coconut-shell mugs—of. “Did you ever find out why the researchers left in the first place?”
He grinned. “I think it came down to fright. Apparently Kailani was something of a rambunctious child.”
“I don’t see—oh.” Marvin’s ears folded back momentarily. “Ah, speaking of your princess, I haven’t seen her yet today.”
“She’s out fishing.”
“You can make an otter royalty, but she’ll always be an otter, eh?”
Russell snorted, and sipped his own drink. “So what are you planning to do? You said you quit your job rather than wait for Bennett to find a way to get you fired.”
“I put in my resignation the day you were…well, fighting a battle, from what you’ve told me.” He shook his head. “Supposed to have been the proper two-week notice, but the day after Bennett got back from his little island adventure here, my boss let me know I didn’t need to keep coming in.”
“I’m sure you can get a job at another accounting firm if you want.”
“I could, but I’m thinking of opening up my own accounting firm. Just a little one-man shop, you know? Probably not back in Palo Morado, but somewhere cheaper. Maybe prettier.” He waved around. “Hawaii’s beautiful, isn’t it? And rent in Honolulu is surprisingly low right now.”
Russell blinked, twice. “You think you can just move to Hawaii, just like that?”
“You did.” He grinned. “And I’m proud of you. Anyway, I already found a vacant storefront, and I have my first two clients lined up.”
“You and him.” He pointed over at Danny, who was chatting up a bare-breasted otter girl by the fire pit.
Russell shook his head, chuckling.
Commotion elsewhere on the beach signaled Kailani’s return. The otter stepped up out of the water—and up, and up—carrying two live sharks by their tails, one in each hand. As the water streamed off her, long black hair plastered to her, he wondered if he’d ever get used to the sight the way the other otters did. He hoped not.
Marvin nearly choked on his drink.
The giantess knelt by the fire pit, other islanders taking each shark, carrying them to wooden tables and bringing out the knives. Kailani stood up again, then walked toward where Marvin and Russell sat, each approaching step a slight tremor stronger than the one before. He leaned forward, but the fox scooted back, hands clenched so tightly around his mug Russell wondered if the shell might crack.
“Good fishing?” he called up as she knelt down. She still dripped seawater.
“Quite good, yes. Dinner will be excellent.” Her huge brown eyes settled on Marvin. He swallowed and uncurled just enough to give her a half-hearted wave.
“You remember my friend Marvin, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.” She leaned forward quickly, one hand coming down behind the fox, fingers curved in a high wall close behind him. “You were the one who helped Bennett twist the lease, and who brought all this misery on us. My father came out of the hospital only today.”
Marvin squeaked, dropping his mug, eyes now wide as baseballs. Russell’s own ears had folded back, even though he knew—hoped—Kailani was being less than serious. “Y-your highness, I swear I didn’t know what would happen. I am so sorry.” He dropped to his knees.
Her scowl deepened, and she brought her head down lower. “You knew he would build the hotel!”
“Yes, but I didn’t think it would all be this disastrous!”
She bared her teeth, growling low. Russell clamped down on his own whimper.
“Foxes are tough and stringy!” Marvin blurted.
Kailani straightened up, looking startled, then burst out laughing. “You are forgiven both for your part and for being stringy.” She rose up to her full awe-inspiring height, then shifted down to her normal size. Russell had almost gotten used to the soft thunderclap of air rushing into the space that had been filled by otter a moment before, but Marvin squeaked again, nearly falling over. “I shall go dress. You shall stay with us for the celebration tonight, Marvin.” She grinned. “I promise you are not on the menu.”
As she walked away, Marvin let out his breath slowly and shakily, using both hands to literally climb back into his seat. “Your new girlfriend is terrifying, Russ.”
“I thought you said she was ‘sweet.’”
“Having just seen her nude, she’s beyond sweet. Also terrifying.”
Russell laughed. “I knew she was going to do that to you and it was still a bit alarming, I confess.”
“You knew—” Marvin narrowed his eyes. “You set me up?”
“Well, your name’s come up more than once as Kailani and I talked, and for a while she was quite mad with you. She isn’t now, but she had a little steam to blow off.”
“A ‘little steam,’ you say.” He shivered.
By the time the sun had set, the shark steaks were roasting over the flames with a cornucopia of tropical fruits, along with boiling pots of rice and taro. Marvin, Russell, and Danny stood on the side, not far from King Aremana. He sat in a very modern-looking wheelchair and his bright unbuttoned shirt revealed bandages over most of his abdomen, but he beamed as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Another attractive, barely clothed young otter woman came by and refilled all their mugs with something whose scent marked it as something far more potent than coconut water. Russell took a cautious sip. It tasted of sugarcane, exotic fruits and pure fire. “Good lord. What is this?”
“Something traditional here.” Danny grinned. “I call it Palekaiko Punch.”
“It’s lovely.” Marvin took a too-large sip, and looked after the otter who’d brought it. “And so is the island style of dress.”
Russell snorted. “The island style of _un_dress?”
“That’s what’s lovely about it.”
Rough wooden tables soon were laden down with carved bowls overflowing with food. Kailani and Tua sat to either side of the king, and villagers brought food to them; everyone else served themselves. Or served each other. Generously. He’d thought he might try a little of almost everything, but ended up with a little too much of absolutely everything.
And during dinner, some of the islanders danced.
Russell had seen a film or two of “traditional” dances from islands in the area, but wasn’t surprised to learn they weren’t true to reality. There were flower necklaces but no grass skirts, and rather than frenetic hip-shaking, the movements flowed sensuously, the accompaniment drum sticks and chanting. Few races could do “flowing dance” better than otters. And none of the women—or men—wore tops. Marvin wasn’t quite distracted enough by the dancing not to eat, but he was distracted enough to miss his muzzle with the food a couple of times.
After he finished eating, he walked to the three royals. “Do you dance, princess?”
“I do.” She smiled. “But you see our dances are not like Western dances. Couples do not dance together.”
“I bet there’s a dance hall or two in Honolulu we could visit, sometime.”
“Then you dance?”
He laughed. “Not well.”
Kailani laughed, too, and took his hand. They stood together, watching the dancers, until the moon rose high in the sky and Aremana asked Prince Tua to wheel him away from the fire. Then she looked up at the cougar. “Walk with me.”
He nodded, and they walked down the beach together, away from the revelers, away from the fire. When they rounded the eastern edge of the cove, the only light became the stars and the moon.
“We have talked about many things the past two weeks, but I have not asked you a very simple question. I have been afraid to.” She looked up at him as they walked. “Are you sure you will be happy here? It is…so entirely different from everything I know you had planned.”
“It is, yes.” He sighed, thoughtfully rather than sadly, and smiled. “But life really can’t be a checklist you proceed through in order, can it? Everything could have happened just as I’d dreamed, and I might be looking back on my life forty years from now wondering where exactly it had gone wrong. And I know exactly what I’d be wondering about. I’d be wondering what would have happened if I’d gone after you. If you really had been everything I’d wanted.”
She smiled self-consciously. “Now I am afraid I shall disappoint you.”
He tilted her head up. “I’m not.” He gave her a long, lingering kiss on the muzzle.
She held the kiss, and when she drew away, she looked up into his eyes for long seconds. Then she took his hand once more and continued along the beach.
“Where are we going?”
She didn’t answer, only smiled. It took another minute before they reached another cove, a much smaller one. Kailani let go of him, stepped away, turned to face him, and let her dress fall. She knelt down, and then with a soft, rolling thunderclap he was between a much larger set of knees.
He tilted his head back slowly, taking in her body, silhouetted by moonlight, heart skipping several beats. “You would like me to be a small cougar at your feet?” he murmured.
Her whisper was a velvet thunderstorm. “I would like you to be a small cougar in my hand.” She let her left hand rest in front of him, palm up.
Taking a deep breath, he climbed on, moving past those fearsome, lovely claws, sitting down on the soft rubbery pad. Her fingers curled, and she lifted him up, slowly, past her belly, her breast, up toward her muzzle. Her lips pressed against him again, this time parting, and a tongue as wide across as the reach of his arms slipped out to give him a slow lick.
Was it what he’d imagined it would be like, all those times before? Yes. And no. The warmth, the wetness—yes. But the sound of wet flesh against clothing and fur, the scent of her breath, the sight of the teeth flashing past, the strength that dragged his body up along her palm a good half-foot—no. The way it left him gasping, cool and sticky in the night air. No.
The otter gave him a kiss, gentle but lingering. “Strip.”
He did. She swept his clothes off her palm with two fingers of her other hand, then cupped him to her left breast. A fraction of a fraction of her strength, still irresistible, heavy, awkward. He wrapped his arms around as much of her as he could and kissed her nipple. He was terrified. He was impossibly in lust. He was impossibly in love.
She rumbled, a soft ecstatic tremor vibrating through his bones, and his eyes met hers as she took a deep, slow breath, making him ride the inhale, ride the exhale. Then her hand started slowly moving him down her body, and he felt her next words more than he heard them. “Let me be your goddess.”
“You are,” he breathed.