Authors: Sarah A. Hoyt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah A. Hoyt
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN 10: 1-4165-5593-5
ISBN 13: 978-1-4165-5593-3
Cover art by Tom Kidd
First printing, October 2008
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hoyt, Sarah A.
Gentleman takes a chance / Sarah A. Hoyt.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5593-3 (hc)
ISBN-10: 1-4165-5593-5 (hc)
1. Changelings—Fiction. I. Title.
Pages by Joy Freeman (www.pagesbyjoy.com)
Printed in the United States of America
Draw One in the Dark
Gentleman Takes a Chance
From near and far the creatures gather—winged and hoofed, clawed and fanged, and armed with quick rending maws. Great hulking beasts appear that the world has not seen in uncounted ages: reptiles that crawled in great primeval swamps long before human foot trod the Earth; saber-toothed tigers and winged pterodactyls. And others: bears and apes; foxes and antelopes, all converge on a small hotel on the outskirts of Denver, as a snowstorm gathers over the Rocky Mountains.
Outside the hotel, some change shapes—a quick twist, a wrench of bone and flesh, and where the animals once were, there now stand men and women. Others fly into the room, through the open balcony door, before changing their shapes.
In there—in human form—they crowd together, massing, restive. Old and young, hirsute and elegant, they gather.
Outside the day dims as a roiling darkness of clouds obscure the sun. Inside the men and women who were—such a short time ago—beasts wait.
Then of a sudden
is there, though no one saw him shift shapes; no one saw him arrive.
He is not huge. At least not in his human form. A well formed man, of Mediterranean appearance, with well-cut if somewhat long lanky dark hair, sensuous lips and a body that would not have looked out of place in a Roman temple. He appears to be in his middle years and wears his nakedness with the confidence of someone who feels protected in or out of clothes.
But it is his eyes that hold the assembly in check—dark eyes, intense and intent—that look at each of them in turn as though he knew not only any of their possible sins and crimes, but also their nameless, most intimate thoughts.
"Here," he says. "It is here. It is nearby."
"Here," another voice says.
"So many dead. Shapeshifters. Dead."
"We can't let this stand," someone says.
"It won't stand," the leader of the group says. "We'll find those who killed the young ones of our kind. And we will kill them. The blood of our children calls to me for revenge. I've executed the murderers of our kin before and I will do so again."
"The deaths happened in Goldport, Colorado," a voice says from the crowd and a finger points. "That way."
"I will be there tomorrow," the leader of the meeting says. A tenseness about him indicates certainty and something else—an eagerness to kill again.
Kyrie Smith looked up at the ceiling as a sort of scraping bump came from the roof of the tiny workingman Victorian that she shared with her boyfriend, Tom Ormson. The sound reminded her of ships at high sea—of the shifting and knocking of wood under stress. How much snow was up there by now? And how much could the roof withstand?
From the radio—high up on the shelf over the card table and two folding chairs that served as dining nook—came a high-pitched whistle, followed by a voice, "We interrupt this program to issue a severe winter storm alert. All city facilities are closed and everyone who is not emergency and essential personnel is requested to stay indoors. Goldport Police Department is on cold reporting. Should your home become unsafe or should you believe that it will become unsafe, these are the public shelters available."
There followed a long list of public buildings and churches. Kyrie thought briefly that with the weather the police couldn't be on anything but cold reporting—icy in fact—though she knew very well they meant that any accidents should be reported later. Cold seemed such an apt adjective for what was happening outside.
Not that she anticipated needing shelter. The little Victorian cottage had been here for over a hundred years and presumably had survived massive snowstorms. But though it was only three p.m., with the scant light outside, the swirling darkness looked more like stormy midnight than the middle of the afternoon.
It was her first blizzard in Goldport, Colorado. She'd lived here for just over a year, but the last winter had been mild, sparing her one of the legendary Rocky Mountain blizzards. Which she wouldn't have minded so much, except for the fact that those blizzards grew ever larger in the tall tales of all her neighbors, acquaintances, and the regular diners at The George.
For the last week—while the weathermen screamed
—the clientele at The George had been evenly divided between those who'd say not a flake would fall and those who insisted they would all be buried in snow and ice and future generations would find them like so many Siberian mammoths buried in permafrost, the remains of their last souvlaki meal still in their stomachs.
Kyrie suppressed a shudder, gave a forceful stir to the bowl of cookie dough she held against her jean-clad hip, and told herself she was being very silly. It wasn't like her to have this sort of fanciful, almost superstitious fear. She'd like to think she had imagination enough, but she'd never had time to let it run riot.
She had been abandoned as a newborn at the door of a church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve, and had lived in a succession of foster homes, having to fend for herself more often than not. She'd grown up slim and graceful, with the muscular body of a runner.
At almost twenty-two, she'd been an adult and on her own for about four years. She rarely stayed at a job for very long. What she had thought for many years were dreams of turning into a panther—and now knew was true shape-shifting—usually scared her away from any given place, job or relationship and had kept her moving before anyone became too close. She'd been afraid of being made to see a psychiatrist. She'd been afraid of being given antipsychotic drugs. Sane or not, she wanted to know her thoughts came from her own mind, not from some chemical. And her madness—as she thought it—hurt no one. It was just dreams.
For years she told herself she didn't miss people, or relationships, or those other things that seemed to be a given right of all other humans. She kept her own house and her own mind. And, until three months ago, when Tom had become her boyfriend and started subletting the enclosed porch at the back of the house, she'd been lonely. Very lonely.
Then suddenly she'd had to believe she was a shifter. That the panther she dreamed of being was her other self. And that there were others like her. This had tossed her head first into a sea of new relationships, new ties.
This house and Tom were the closest thing she'd ever had to a family. Probably the closest thing he'd ever had to a family, too. Oh, he'd grown up with wealthy parents, she knew. He'd been raised in New York City by professional, well-to-do mom and dad. But that hadn't made them a family. It wasn't just that Tom's parents had divorced when he was very young. People might divorce and yet raise their children well and as a family. It was more that his mother had never cared again if Tom lived or died. And his father had left Tom to be raised by hired help, and only took notice of him when Tom got in some scrape and had to be bailed out—which he did regularly—possibly because it was the only time he got attention. And then, when Tom was sixteen, his father had walked in on him changing from a dragon to a human, and—horrified or scared—had thrown Tom out onto the streets of New York City in nothing but a robe.
After that Tom, too, had drifted aimlessly, living as he could, without anyone to rely on, without anywhere to call home. And now . . .
And now they lived together. And they were dating, presumably with a view to marriage, not that it had ever been mentioned. Of course, since Tom's father had bought the diner for them jointly, they were already part of a partnership.
And a touch of Tom's calloused hand could still set her heart aflutter, just like a sudden tender look from him, across the diner on a busy day, could make her feel as though she were melting from the inside out.
Still all their kisses and their caresses had an end. Tom always pulled back, before things went too far. Everyone in the diner—everyone who knew them—assumed that, since they dated and lived together, they were sleeping together as well. And Kyrie didn't know what to think. Tom said that he wanted to take it slow, to give them both time to establish a normal relationship before they became more intimate. And yet . . .
And yet sometimes, when he pulled back, she caught a hint of something in his eyes—distance and fear. Was he afraid he'd shift during lovemaking? It wasn't that unusual to shift under strong emotions, so that might be all it was. Or perhaps he'd realized he'd made a mistake and she was not whom he wanted?
A wave of protectiveness and of almost shocking possessiveness arose in her—the need to protect this, the one haven she'd found. Something—someone—must belong to her. And Tom was hers. Oh, not against his will. But hers to protect and hers to love.
Setting the bowl down, she pulled back her waistlong hair with a flour-covered hand, marring her carefully dyed-in Earth-tone pattern—that gave the impression of a tapestry whose lines shifted whenever she moved—with a broad streak of white. She frowned at the little door that led to the back porch where Tom was still asleep.
Would Tom be upset that she had turned off his alarm clock? They both worked the night shift at The George—a long night shift, often seven p.m. to seven a.m.—and he always set his alarm for two p.m. But she had turned it off because she thought there was no point going into the diner today and Tom might as well rest. The chances of their having enough customers to justify the money used in lighting and heating The George were very low. And even though it was only a few blocks away, Kyrie didn't want to drive in the storm howling outside. And she certainly didn't want to walk in it.
Whether Tom agreed with her was something else again. She looked down at the bowl of dough. A succession of never-ending foster homes had taught her that the easiest way of managing men was by setting something sweet down in front them. It tended to distract them long enough that they didn't remember to be angry.
Still, as she knelt down to rummage under the cabinet for her two baking sheets, she tensed at a sort of half-gasped cry from Tom's sleeping porch. Rising, she held the trays as a shield, and looked at the door into the enclosed back porch. Tom didn't cry out in his sleep. The house was barely large enough to swing a cat. If he sleep-screamed, she'd know by now.
He didn't yell again, but there was a deep sigh, and then the slap of his feet—swung over the side of the daybed—hitting the wooden floor of the sleeping porch. The sound was followed by others she knew well, from normal days. A confused mutter that, had she been close enough, would reveal itself as "What time is it?" followed by a cartoonlike sound of surprise, which was followed, in short order, by the sound of the back blind being pulled aside to allow him to look outside, and then by words she couldn't hear well enough to understand but which—from the tone—were definitely swearing.
Then Tom's bare feet padded towards the door between sleeping porch and kitchen. Kyrie, who in her short time of sharing the house with a male, had learned that if you appeared to be totally in command and quite sure you'd done the right thing, men—or at least Tom—were likely to go along with it, so she set the tray down on the card table at which they normally ate and started studiously setting little balls of cookie dough down on the tray, two inches apart.
Tom cleared his throat, and she looked up, to see him in the doorway. Her first thought—as always—was that, despite being all of five-six, he looked amazing, with pale skin, the color of antique ivory; glossy, curly black hair just long enough to brush his shoulders contrasted with intensely blue eyes like the sky on a perfect summer day, and generously drawn lips that just begged to be kissed. Her second thought was that the most sculpted chest in creation deserved better than to be encased in a baggy green T-shirt that read
Meddle you not in the affairs of dragons, for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup
. Even if she'd bought him the T-shirt. And the best ass in the tri-state area should not be hidden by flannel checker-pattern pajama pants in such virulent green and yellow they could give seizures to used car salesmen.