Monday, January 12, 2015
Q and A
Sanjay led an unresisting Serenity away from the rowdy ruckus of the bachelor auction and over to a booth at the wall. From here they could still watch the action while remaining apart from it. It created an odd sensation: intimacy in the midst of a crowd. Whoever had designed the club this way, the owner had definitely gotten the most bang out of his buck.
That thought caused Serenity’s nerves to rear up and swamp her again. In spite of the number of people here, she was now, for all intents and purposes, alone with a total stranger. In fact, scratch the whole “people” label. The “people” here were shapeshifters, liable to turn into some kind of animal at a moment’s notice. Present company included.
He didn’t look like an animal. That was the problem. None of them did, until they grew fur and hooves and fangs and feathers and whatnot. It was the whatnot that bothered her most. What if he was one of those species who were, well, different down below? What if, now that she’d agreed to have dinner with him, he afterwards insisted on dessert?
“You’re getting sweaty again,” he observed. “Are you sure you’re not at least part deer?”
“I’m sure.” She wiped her hands on a napkin. “I’m human all the way. And you’re … what exactly are you? I never thought to ask.”
“Ah. The adventurous type.” He flashed those perfect teeth of his. “I’m a tiger, of course. Surely you could tell?”
Surely if she had, she would have run screaming out of the club and taken her chances walking home, all ten miles in the dead of night. A tiger? One of the big cats? They were more dangerous than wolves, and the things she’d heard about wolves …
“A tiger?” she squeaked.
“A son of Zhere Ghan himself,” he said proudly. “Even the humans have heard of him.”
“You mean the crime lord?” Dear God, she’d just bought the son of the Godfather.
Sanjay’s face fell. “I suppose he’s earned that title. At home, we prefer ‘businessman.’ I don’t take part in that aspect of his life. I assure you, I am not … packing.”
“So that bulge in your briefs is all you?”
“What—oh.” He hastily crossed his legs. His skin flushed even darker.
Even with anxiety in ascendance, Serenity had to giggle. “Maybe it would help if we got to know each other a bit. I mean, if we’re going to spend the evening together—” She cut that one off in a hurry. Yeesh. Freudian much?
To cover, she added, “You go first. Ask me whatever you want.”
“Are you older than twelve?”
“Huh? Of course I am. I’m in here, aren’t I? I think they card tweens at the door.”
“Thank Vishnu. An adult,” he murmured. “Your turn.”
“You’re not a criminal, are you? Please tell me you’re not a criminal.”
“I’m not a criminal,” he said somberly. “Neither is Guri. Father only shares his business doings with our brother Tasman, the first born. And our other brother Ravi. He’s recently returned to India. He’s running that end of the business now.”
“So what do you do?”
“That’s two questions.” He didn’t sound annoyed. “I am a student. Or was. Father plucked me out of University to drag me here to America. He said life would provide all the schooling I needed.” Sanjay sighed. “I miss the library. It’s so peaceful. You rarely get into fistfights in a library. And now I get two questions. You’re ill at ease around shapeshifters, are you not?”
Serenity snorted. “Is it that obvious?”
“Yes,” he said, either missing or ignoring her sarcasm. “Which prompts me to ask why you would come here.”
“This wasn’t my idea. I was—” Crud with a dash of tabasco. Honesty, or lies? She looked into Sanjay’s open, untigerish face and realized even a white lie wasn’t an option. “I was on a date. My boyfriend—I mean my ex—brought me here to break up with me. The girl he was cheating on me with works here.” She realized she was tugging on the cloth napkin, trying to rip it apart. She tucked it into her lap. “I guess I’m single now. Is it my turn?” Sanjay nodded gravely. “Do you mind being with a human? I mean, just for tonight.”
In response, he took her hands in his. “Humans don’t offend me. You, however, are squeamish around shapeshifters. Here is my next question. Will you do something for me?”
Serenity stared at her hands, caught in his brown paws. If she tugged, would he let go? She feared he wouldn’t. She feared he would. “Okay,” she said uncertainly.
“Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Very good. Now hold it, please.” He counted to five. “Now let it go. Slowly.” He counted while she exhaled. They went through the exercise again, and again.
Serenity found the waves of noise around her were receding into an audial blur. It was as if they’d been engulfed in a bubble that cut them off from the rest of the world, a bubble formed by Sanjay’s gentle voice. That loud, rapid thump in her ears became fainter and slower. Wait a minute. That was her heartbeat.
She opened her eyes, surprised. For the first time tonight, she felt … calm. “Wow,” she breathed. “How did you do that?”
“Is that your question?” he teased. “Very well. I’ve studied meditation. It helps on the hunt. One must be focused when stalking the prey. And should one miss the kill, one should be philosophical about it. No.” He held up a finger. “We don’t eat humans. That practice ended centuries ago. I believe it’s my turn now. What would you like for dinner?”
Serenity suddenly realized there was a server hovering by their booth. “Um … do you still serve the Clams Casino?”
Sanjay smiled broadly. “Seafood. An excellent choice. I will have the sea bass. Wine?” he asked her.
I shouldn’t, she thought. I shouldn’t drink around a predator. Oh, what the hell. He had to be the most un-predatious predator in the whole damn club. She let him choose the wine.
While the server poured their glasses, she asked herself one final question: Am I making a huge mistake? Earlier in the evening she might have said one thing. Now, with a relaxed heart rate and a glass of wine in her not-so-sweaty hand, the answer became: So what?