This wasn’t his bed. Where had he just woken up? His neck felt it’d been snapped and mended with duct tape.
Russell sat up gingerly, looking around in the near darkness. Yes. All right. This was his living room, his sofa. He’d fallen asleep last night right here, just staring at the ceiling and thinking about—about what a terrible idea it was to keep thinking about the things he’d started thinking about.
Grunting, he stood up, padding into the kitchen to check the time. Just past three in the morning. Sighing heavily, he headed into his bedroom, stripping and dropping into bed. He at least had the presence of mind to check his alarm was set, as much as he knew he’d hate hearing it in three hours.
His suspicions of hate proved on point. Only the stability of his routine propelled him through the morning. Grooming, dressing, starting the morning coffee, preparing his lunch while it brewed—damn. Fridays should be tuna salad, but that required making the salad the night before. He sighed. He supposed it didn’t require it. He could just get the tuna, try not to think about her talking about fishing as he looked at the can—
He threw the can back in the cupboard and made a roast beef and cheddar sandwich, then poured his coffee to sit down with the paper. Morning paper, coffee, toast, jam. By the time he reached the library, tipping his cap to Alice as he walked past, he felt…almost back to normal.
The day proceeded in blissful normalcy—no mysterious messages, no unexpected visitors—until just past lunchtime, when Marvin rounded the corner, looking so dejected he was surprised one of the more matronly librarians hadn’t waylaid him for a reassuring hug.
“Russ,” he said without preamble, “I just wanted to see if I could—you look awful. Are you ill?”
“I’m fine.” The cougar sighed. “Just tired. I didn’t sleep well.”
“Oh. Oh. I guess I don’t need to ask how things went with the otter girl last night, then.”
Russell narrowed his eyes. “First off, nothing happened. Second, how the devil do you know about that?”
The fox raised his hands. “Bennett said that he’d heard—I suppose from her father—that you’d had a date with her.”
“I did not have a date. I just showed her around the town and took her to dinner.”
Marvin stared at him blankly for several seconds. “There may be some nuance I’m not picking up here, but I’m having trouble telling that apart from a date.”
The cougar rubbed his temples.
“Look, I just wanted to pick your brain a moment. Did you talk to the girl about Bennett’s hotel project? Try to sell her on it a little?”
“Yes, in fact I did. But she didn’t seem all that receptive. I’m not sure that I can blame her, either.”
“She wants to do what her father wants to do, I suppose. Bennett isn’t sure you’d even have brought it up, but I told him I’m sure you would have if you said you would. You’re a stand-up fellow.”
Russell felt his temper rising. “Look here, now, exactly what’s going on? Are you and Bennett in on something together? Why are you even talking about me? How did any of this come up?”
“Calm down, calm down. I’d come by Bennett’s office yesterday with the numbers he’d asked for—projections on how much the villagers stand to make from the hotel, all the good things it could bring to their little luau cove. His people had done some of the same work, of course, but they’d been looking at it only from Bennett’s standpoint. I think they just figured, oh, these people probably use coconuts for currency, we’ll tell them anything and they’ll sign it all away.”
Russell gritted his teeth. “Kailani is as smart as any student here and likely better educated than half the freshmen.”
“I’ll take your word on that, but no one in her family seems to have a head for numbers, because mine didn’t convince them either. Her father gave a final ‘no’ this morning.”
“Oh,” Marvin repeated. “And given that both you and I explicitly tried to help Bennett and failed, he’s not going to be very receptive to either of us advancing at the university unless we come up with some way to placate him.”
“He doesn’t get to make hiring decisions here, you know.”
Marvin raised his brows and tilted his head to the side, giving the cougar a witheringly pitying look.
“Fine.” Russell sighed. “But you—we—can just suggest somewhere else to build. I know he has his knotted little heart set on that one, but—”
“There’s no ‘but’ about it. He wants that latitude, that climate—that island. There’s only a few other lagoons as magnificent as that one around the area, and they’re all unavailable. Two already have hotels being built along them, because the natives on those islands don’t hate Westerners.”
“Neither do King Aremana’s. Kailani and Tua were educated in mission schools. They had researchers from our university there studying them. They have electricity and books and roads. They’re not backward.” He spread his hands. “What Kailani and her father are worried about is that they might love Western things too much.”
“Yes, yes, I heard part of his speech. I don’t see why they can’t keep being happily Eastern while having a nice hotel there.” Marvin crossed his arms, then furrowed his brow. “Researchers from Bennett University?”
“Some kind of anthropology project, I gather, to record the stories of the tribe. They had a research station built, put in a lot of work, then abandoned the work. Maybe a grant ran out. That’s probably how Bennett found out about the island in the first place.”
The fox shook his head. “No, it isn’t. He commissioned surveyors to scout out a half-dozen possible locations for the hotel, and this was the only one that met all of Bennett’s criteria.” He stroked his chin. “I don’t think he even knows about that research project. Maybe there’s something worth looking into there.”
“I won’t know until I look.” He clapped Russell’s shoulder. “Thanks, Russ. You’ve cheered me up immensely.”
That makes one of us, then, doesn’t it? “You’re welcome,” he mumbled, but the fox had already turned tail.
If Bennett held his inability to sell the princess on his pipe dream of a resort against him, so be it. While he was at it, he could hold Russell responsible for the week’s down stock market and the conservatives losing the last election. And whatever Marvin had in mind, it was no longer his concern.
He rifled through his pending tray, looking for anything to just keep his mind occupied—ah. Cheryl’s utterly superfluous re-cataloging project. Perfect. He pushed back from his desk and headed into the stacks.
The afternoon took more than its own sweet time to pass, yet when it hit five o’clock, Russell wished it had been moving at half that speed. As he nodded to Alice on his way out, slipping on his coat and donning his hat, the decision point rapidly approached.
He walked outside, down the sidewalk that led to the university’s front entrance a block away from Palo Morado’s business district. It would be excellent weather for being outside this evening. When Russell reached the next cross street, he stood on the intersection, staring in the direction of the Fairmont. The hotel couldn’t be seen from where he stood, but just another fifty yards’ walk would bring it into view.
If he didn’t see her again tonight, she would be gone. Back to her little island, out of his life for good. Marvin would undoubtedly make that an argument for seeing her, not against—an evening to follow wherever it led with no care to consequences.
But Russell wanted consequences, once the time was right. That time simply wasn’t now.
“And otters aren’t really my type,” he said aloud.
An elderly lioness passing by gave him an archly disapproving glare and picked up her pace.
“I’m not sure I believe it either, madam,” he muttered. Lowering his hat brim and thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, he stalked back toward his apartment, away from the hotel, eyes locked on the sidewalk.
This evening everything was back on the rails.
He’d brought in the mail, had his coffee, listened to the National Motors Radio Hour while making dinner. The poached chicken had come out perfectly, and he had a new issue of The Atlantic waiting for him.
A flip through the table of contents revealed a feature on Bennett University, although focused on their underwhelming football program—he decided he’d skip that for now—and more analysis of the current political situation in Europe. A shorter feature bore the title “Lost Magics,” an exploration of old folk tales and what truth might lie beneath them. He settled back with a glass of brandy and began reading.
A scant four paragraphs in, though, three knocks sounded at the door.
No, not knocks. “Knock” sounded gentle. These noises were sharp. Hard. They meant business. The cougar set down the magazine and rose to his feet, looking at the door guardedly.
Silence reigned for several seconds. Then another series of not-knocks rang out, with even more force. He walked toward the door, stopping with his hand on the knob. “Who’s there?”
“It is Kailani.” Her voice remained as musical as ever, but her song had slipped into discordance.
He unlatched the door and swung it open, eyes wide.
The otter woman stood dressed close to the way she had two nights ago, a sleeveless one-piece dress with a billowing skirt. She was breathing hard, as if she’d marched full speed all the way to the apartment from the Fairmont. That made the dress and necklace move in distracting ways, but her angry expression kept him quite focused.
“You told me where you lived. When you did not come to see me, I wanted to know why.” She looked up into his eyes, shuddering. For several moments, he thought she might be about to slap him. He couldn’t say he didn’t deserve it.
He sighed, looking up at the ceiling, then back down at her. “Please. Come in.”
She did, and he locked the door behind her, motioning her toward the living room. They sat down together on the couch, her eyes locked onto his the whole way.
“Princess…Kailani. I’m sorry if I gave you the impression I’d agreed to come back tonight, but—”
“You said you would ‘see.’ I know you are shy. I was sure…” She swallowed. “I was very hopeful that meant yes.”
“It meant I didn’t want to say no.”
She looked down at the floor. When she spoke again her voice had dropped to a whisper. “I had a very nice time with you yesterday.”
“And I had a wonderful time with you.”
Kailani looked up at him, clearly on the verge of tears. “Then why? What is it you do not like about me? Do you find me unattractive?”
Russell ran a hand through his hair, trying to compose a response.
She went on, speaking faster. “The professors two nights ago, they did not see in me what you do. Many of the men of Uli Hahape do not either. They see me as very desirable and that is flattering. But they are not interested in being my friend. You are. And that is part of what attracted me to you. I thought you were handsome when I first saw you, and you have been so—so charming.” Her hands twisted in her dress. “But I want you to see me as desirable, too.”
“That’s not—you don’t…” He sighed, resting his elbows on his knees, looking away from her, smiling a little crooked smile. “I never thought I found otters attractive. Cute, yes. But…here you come along, and you’re smart and well-spoken and great fun to be around…” He laughed, all nerves rather than humor, a shaky noise that fit the smile. “And damn it all, but you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” He looked sidelong at her, the smile growing wry. “That doesn’t sound like a very good reason not to see you again, does it?”
She didn’t answer. Confusion joined the hurt in her eyes.
“I told you about the house, the one I want. The professorship. Everything in the future. It’s that—” What was he about to blurt out? Good lord, he’d only known her two days.
Oh, it’d have been so much easier if she’d just gone away angry without confronting him like she was supposed to.
“It’s that I’m not ready to fall in love yet, and I’m afraid I could fall in love with you very easily,” he finished softly.
Kailani remained silent a few more long seconds, then reached out to place her hand on top of his. “We do not need to ask one another for a lifetime. Just another evening.”
Russell looked into her eyes, biting his lip. “It’s late, you know. I don’t think there’s any place likely to be open apart from bars.”
“All I want is your company. I will be busy tomorrow and gone the day after, and we will not see one another again until you visit my island.” She smiled just a little.
He sighed, but smiled back himself. “While it might be too late in the evening, I can make us some coffee if you’d like.”
“That would be wonderful.”
He nodded and headed back into the kitchen, measuring out twice as much coffee as he usually did—no, three times, he decided. Just in case. And she’s here to talk to you, just talk, right? So talk. “Is your island one of the ones that grows coffee?”
“No, but a neighboring island does. It is not a native plant. It was brought by the British, I think, from Africa.”
“Really. I suppose coffee isn’t as tropical as pineapples and coconuts and rum, but it doesn’t seem very British, either. I’d have thought they’d bring tea.” The kettle went off. “Ah. Just a minute. Well, three.” He poured the water into the press pot over the grounds. Didn’t he have a tray somewhere to carry this all out on? She was a guest, and royalty, and yes, dazzlingly attractive. Now that he’d admitted it to her he had no excuse to pretend otherwise to himself.
He looked in the upper cabinets where the dishes were, then dug through the lower cabinets, then finally found the tray over the refrigerator, a simple bamboo rectangle. Almost an island theme. He hoped that wouldn’t seem somehow disrespectful.
The timer went off just as he got down the better ceramic cups. He pressed down the pot’s plunger, set it on the tray with the cups, then set the half-and-half carton from the fridge on it by the sugar bowl before carrying it out. He didn’t have a ceramic creamer, so that would have to do.
“I don’t know whether you like cream or sugar, so I brought both.” He set the tray down on the coffee table.
Kailani didn’t respond; she was slowly flipping through a magazine, eyes wide. Extremely wide.
Was that The Atlantic that—no, he’d just pushed that aside to set the tray down.
Russell felt little spiders run down his spine.
He reached to take the magazine from her. The otter quickly leaned back and raised it up to keep it out of his reach, turning those wide eyes on him as she let the pinup fall open.
“Give me that,” he snapped, lunging for it and yanking it out of her hands, tearing a corner of the centerfold. How could he have left it out here? He rarely had unexpected guests, but still—
“I…do not…” The otter’s mouth kept working, but she stuttered without forming words.
He tossed the magazine back onto the table and threw himself down on the opposite end of the couch, ears folded back, crossing his arms. “Fantastic. I’ve started the evening as a cad, and now I’m revealed as a pervert.”
“I—” She took a deep breath. “Americans—I thought Americans did not like size-shifters. They cannot come into your country!”
“That’s just xenophobia.” He sighed. “There are hundreds of American size-shifters. Thousands. Some famous ones. Stars. Heroes.”
“And…” She pointed at the magazine. “Sex symbols?”
He couldn’t read her tone. He expected it to be horrified, or incredulous, but it seemed almost—almost angry. Utterly wonderful. He’d been on the cusp of—well, of something, and now he’d actively offended her.
“Have you met a size-shifter, or have you just seen pictures of them?”
“I am not going to have this conversation. Just…just leave!” His voice broke miserably on the last word.
She continued to stare at him for several awfully uncomfortable seconds, then stood up. He leaned forward, resting his head in his hands.
He didn’t realize she hadn’t left until her hands lightly settled on his shoulders from behind. Before he could muster another command for her to ignore, she spoke, lilting voice so soft it barely rose above a whisper. “By the trees in the garden, we talked of giants. You imagined standing by one looking up, and I imagined being one, looking down.” She gently pulled his shoulders toward her, bringing his back flat against the cushion, and ran one hand along his collarbone to his neck. “I like that image.” She cupped his chin and gently tilted his head back. She leaned forward slightly, head over his, looking straight down at him. “Do you?”
His ears skewed. Now she was surely mocking him. “Of you as the giant I’m looking up at.”
“As tall as the model on the cover of that magazine.”
“I’m…I’m too old to be playing make believe.” He tried for his best that will be about enough of that, young lady professorial voice, but his tone had grown hoarse. He’d only succeeded at sounding petulant.
“No. You like photographs of giantesses playing make believe with little men, and I think that means you make believe you are one of those men. So I would like to make believe I am one of those giantesses.” She leaned down, muzzle so close to his left ear her lips brushed it as she spoke. “If I were that tall, where would you come up to standing by me?”
This close, her warmth and her scent were more distracting than her voice. “I—”
She let go of him, only to sit down on the back of the couch and swing her legs around, setting her bare paws on the seat cushion near him. Her right one stayed there, pressing against his left leg, but she lifted her own left, bending it at the knee, until the foot reached his eye level. “I would say there.” She touched a finger just above her ankle.
That leg, bared up to the thigh for the first time in his presence, narrowly squeaked into the lead for most distracting princess part. “I’m taller than that.”
“Not by much.” She moved her finger up a half an inch. “Perhaps there. But you would fit in my hand easily.” She set her leg down again and held her hand in front of him. “If you stretched out in my palm, you would not quite stretch between the base of my thumb and the tips of my fingers.”
“I’m quite aware. I’ve thought about these things a lot.” He meant his words to sound a little self-deprecating, a little cutting, but a bolt of sudden realization tripped his tongue. Envisioning this was coming very easily to the princess, with no hint of embarrassment or judgement.
Oh my God, she’s thought about these things a lot, too.
He looked up at her face, high above given the perspective she’d forced. The little smile that stole across her muzzle told him exactly how unsuccessful he’d been at keeping his shock off his face.
“Then you have thought about what a giantess might do with you,” she murmured. “Once you were in her hand.”
“This—this really isn’t the sort of conversation I think we should be having.”
“Who will you have this conversation with, if not with me?”
No one. It’s the sort of conversation he shouldn’t be having with anyone. Certainly no girl he’d be likely to ever meet. And if he met one of the magazine’s “goddesses,” he’d be too mortified to flirt. Hello, sexy woman I’ve never met, I’m one of thousands of men who’ve seen you without clothes pretending to be dangerous and who’ve entertained most peculiar fantasies about you. So what’s your favorite movie?
His tail twitched behind him, jostling the cushions despite his efforts to still it. “I think she’d do whatever she’d want with me,” he mumbled.
Kailani laughed. “And I think that is not an answer.” She stroked the side of her hand under his chin. “How much about size-shifters do you know?”
“A lot. I think. I’ve…read a lot, since I was quite young.”
“I know no one can explain them, still, after all this time. Some can change the size of things they’re wearing, or holding, but most can’t. Some can’t get much bigger than twice my height, most top out at a hundred feet high, but some stories talk about ones who can get a thousand feet high or more. But…those seem to just be stories.” He caught her hand lightly in his. “And what do you know about them, princess?”
“I know they are magic,” she said simply. “I know that kind of power is a gift from the gods. And I know that is not scientific, but I think it is true.”
“Your people have them.”
He bit his lip. Could he just casually ask…no. If she was one herself, she’d have said it by now. Wouldn’t she? She hadn’t said she wasn’t one, but if he pursued that course, she might think he’d forgotten everything else he liked about her in pursuit of his fantasies.
On the other hand, she was the one who’d brought it all up.
“I’m…not quite sure how to ask this without it seeming far too direct. But…are you…do you…have that gift?”
She cupped her hand under his chin again, tilting his head up. “I swore to your government that I do not,” she said softly. “And I do not think your neighborhood would be a very safe place for a giantess to be.”
He swallowed, acutely aware how far from a “no” that answer was—and how much of a clear “do not press on this” signal it was. He felt almost afraid to continue down the path she was leading him, but even more afraid not to. That left only one option: smiling up nervously. “So you’d just like to make believe I’m a small cougar at your feet?”
“Hmm.” She slid even closer to him on the back of the couch, swinging her right leg lithely over his head—the cloth of her skirt sliding over his face—and bringing it back down on his other side. Her knees now framed his head, and she planted her feet on his legs. Her skirt still partially covered her left leg, but the soft cloth had bunched up behind him. If he turned his head to the right, his nose would touch her bare thigh, and her warm, tropical ocean scent already filled his head. He looked down at her feet instead. Pressed against him, they felt a little electric. While he’d never focused a lot on feet—other giant aficionados often did, perhaps understandably—he had to admit Kailani’s would be excellent to focus on.
“I think,” she continued in a near whisper, “I would like to make believe you are a small cougar in my hand.” She lifted a cupped hand up in front of his face, slowly, leaning down in the same motion until she was curved over him. Good lord, she was flexible, wasn’t she?
She gave the hand he was supposedly in a slow lick.
Russell couldn’t help but envision just what that would have been like had he really been in that hand, a tongue stronger than his whole body sliding over him, soaking him, pressing him into the soft paw behind. His ears had already grown hot; he started to wonder if they were about to burst into flame.
Kailani abruptly tilted his head up, her palm still wet, and pressed her muzzle to his, her head upside down. He put his hands to her cheeks, returning the kiss as well as he could in the awkward position.
She pressed her muzzle to his more tightly, lips parting, tongue brushing against his lips, slipping between them, hot and wet and slightly sweet. He heard his own voiceless, longing whimper from a distance, as if it wasn’t quite him, quite under his control. He hadn’t felt this way since high school, since his first kiss, and that had hardly been this fast, this…aggressive.
Well, of course she’s aggressive. She’s a giantess.
The otter broke the kiss and straightened up, then swung her legs off him. He let out his breath, achingly aware of the sound of her feet thumping to the floor behind the sofa, walking to the side, cloth rustling against the floor and her fur, the soft snap of a button being undone. And another.
Russell focused quite sharply as she stepped around, looking down at him, hands behind her back. The dress had slipped down, not quite revealing one nipple, but revealing enough to make him quite sure she had nothing on underneath that dress. They locked eyes.
“Kailani…” he whispered. Maybe—maybe he should ask her to stop before she did something one or both of them might regret. But he didn’t. He remained silent, transfixed, looking up at her.
She undid the last fastener and slid her hands to the side, dragging the cloth free of her hips, then letting go. The outfit cascaded to the floor.
Russell had seen a few girls naked in real life and more than a few in photographs, and as much as he enjoyed his magazine, he’d concluded few people in the world looked quite as good unclothed as they did with nicely tailored clothes. Princess Kailani looked gorgeous dressed.
She looked better with clothes off.
He stared up, not even trying to find words.
She leaned forward, down, until her nose nearly touched his, her necklace swaying in front of her breasts. “Let me be your goddess,” she whispered.
He nodded dumbly.
The otter touched her lips to his once more, gentle, lingering. When she straightened up, she had a mischievous smile. “Strip.” Her tone stayed too warm for it to sound truly commanding, yet it wasn’t a request.
He fumbled to undo his shirt’s buttons, then put his hand to his belt, feeling his ears burn again. He undid it as well, then tugged off both slacks and shirt. Unlike the islander, he did have on an undergarment, although in his current state his boxers provided no modesty. After a second’s hesitation, he pushed those off, too.
Kailani slid up onto the couch, straddling him, positioning herself so his nose pressed into her throat. “Kiss.”
He did. And he kissed again when asked/told to over her left breast, then right breast, then belly. She rose over him, webbed hands on his shoulders, arms straightening, pressing him down as she made herself loom, as if he could be held in a single hand and moved from spot to spot on her body. His breathing grew faster, hers grew faster, almost in time.
“I would—am holding you here.” She raised herself higher, hand cupping behind his head, guiding his muzzle right between her legs, tilting his head back.
A shudder ran through her, through him, and then she dropped down, pushing him back prone, her hips down against his, sex surrounding him, legs wrapping tightly, hands on his shoulders, torso straight, thick tail running along and between his legs. She towered above him, a few feet, dozens of feet. “Wriggle—little cougar—” she gasped, high above, then as she fell on him and pressed her lips against his ear, again. “Wriggle.”
He wrapped his arms around her, following her command. He couldn’t have resisted if he tried. They rolled over, back, back again, and somehow she remained on top, both of them now on the floor, jarring the table. If anything fell off it, he didn’t hear. He could only hear her, rising staccato breathy chirps, his own growling. She wriggled, too, lithe muscle and volcano heat, and as she took him, it was a wonder that the force didn’t blow out windows.
Her panting took longer to subside than his, punctuated by a whimper of pain as she slowly pulled away. He gave her an apologetic kiss. “I should have warned you about cats.”
“I know about cats. In that way.” She sat up, keeping a hand on his chest to keep him on the floor.
“You do like towering over me, don’t you?” he murmured, smiling.
“As much as I think you like me towering over you.” She grasped her necklace with both hands, lifting it off herself, then reached down and slipped it around his neck instead.
He sat up. “What’s this?”
“It is…a symbol of our family. A royal seal.” She touched the pendant.
“Oh, you can’t do that. It’s far too…valuable for you to just give me. I’m flattered, but—”
“Who is your goddess?”
He smiled slightly, holding her smaller form to his. “You are.”
“Then it is settled.” She touched her finger to his nose. “This marks you as mine.”
Russell looked down at the pendant. “Your…what?”
“Mine,” she simply repeated.
“I think I like that.” He gave her another, gentle kiss.
She held the kiss for several seconds, then drew away, looking at the table. “The coffee is still there, and we did not spill it.” She laughed, taking the cup. “Even if it is cold now.”
“I think now it is too late in the evening for coffee.”
Kailani tilted her head down slightly, but kept her eyes on him, smile growing. “I do not plan to sleep for some time.”