When Popcorn Press announced their annual Halloween anthology would be werewolf themed, I knew I needed to write something. Little did I know how fun it would be to write about a hunt masquerading as a mating ritual…
By Tiffany Michelle Brown
As Raymond watched icy moonlight gleam off Vanessa’s bare shoulders, he wondered if he was making a mistake. Buying her drinks. Following her here. Getting caught up. And so damn soon. That was the worst part. The part that felt shameful. Raymond rubbed the back of his neck, stifling a guilty grimace as Vanessa flicked through her keyring.
He wouldn’t have done this a year ago, even though he’d been single and hot-blooded and popular with the ladies. Scratch that, he wouldn’t have done this ever. So why was he doing it now? Cool air nipped at Raymond’s shoulders through his cable-knit sweater just as realization nipped like an overzealous gnat at his consciousness.
He knew why he was doing this. Breaking it off with Tonia three weeks prior had left a crater inside his heart, and he was trying to fill it with anything that batted an eyelash and offered to fill him up. On one hand, his actions felt pathetic. On the other, they felt like survival.
Vanessa turned the key in the lock, peered over her shoulder, and gave Raymond a smile. Her coffee brown eyes crinkled in the corners and her teeth gleamed, white as stars. “Sorry.” She reached out and placed a hand on his bicep, her acrylic nails tickling his skin through the fabric of his sweater. “New place. I don’t remember which key is which yet.” She brushed a black curl off her forehead and gazed up at him. “You comin’ inside?”
The hopeful raise of her eyebrows did Raymond in. He couldn’t, in good conscience, abandon this woman now, despite the reluctance that tugged at his chest. His mama had raised him better. He wasn’t the kind of man who’d cold shoulder a woman on her doorstep.
He made a decision. He’d follow her into the house, make casual conversation, ensure she was okay for the night, and leave before things got complicated. He wouldn’t be swayed—even if she did smell of gardenias and honey. No. He had his moral code, and he’d be damned if a pretty face and the curve of a hip made him lose himself. Or his memories of Tonia.
Raymond offered a curt nod of acceptance. Vanessa’s lips stretched into a grin, and she pushed the door open. Her heels clicked on the hardwood floor as she sauntered inside, leaning into her hips as she moved. Raymond followed, stuffing his hands in his pockets, keeping his eyes glued to Vanessa’s curly hair, telling himself repeatedly not to let them drift south.
The room smelled of fresh paint. Boxes were stacked in the corners, and the only furniture in the room consisted of a blue suede couch and a lamp that stood vigil in the corner. Vanessa crossed the room and flicked on the bulb, basking the space in warm yellow light. She leaned against a freshly primed wall. The blue sequins adorning her dress glittered, and her eyes sparkled with new intensity. She curled her finger at Raymond. “Come here.”
Raymond closed the front door and secured the latch. He leaned back against the wood. “Maybe it’s best if I stay over here for right now.”
Disappointment skittered across Vanessa’s face, and her breath caught in her chest. She paused a moment and then exhaled, shaking her head. “You’re a gentleman all of a sudden, huh?” She smiled at him and bit her lip. “Pity.”
Raymond shrugged his shoulders, feigning nonchalance while his gut grew heavy with guilt. He shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be leading her on. But bolting would be a dick move.
Conversation. It was time for conversation. “How long ago did you move in?”
Vanessa raised an eyebrow. “We’re playing twenty questions now?”
“We didn’t really get to know each other at the bar.” Which was true. He’d learned she was new in town, had a taste for vodka martinis with a twist, and could tear up a dance floor to 90s RnB—especially Boyz II Men—but not much else.
Vanessa threw up her hands. “Okay, okay…We’ll talk first…” She smoothed her dress and held up her fingers. “I’ve been here for two weeks.”
“You move out here for a job?”
“No.” Vanessa crossed her arms over her chest. “Family. I have a sister who lives here.” Vanessa’s features fell, and her eyes darted to the floor. “She isn’t doing well. She got in a nasty accident recently, a hit and run.”
Raymond frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He considered moving closer, perhaps offering her a shoulder, but…proximity could be dangerous. Compromising. Intoxicating. He needed to keep his distance.
“I’m her big sister. I’m used to taking care of her.” Vanessa’s lips twitched into a sad smile. “Family is important to me.” She glanced out the bay window into the darkened front yard and then her eyes found Raymond’s. “You want a beer?”
Vanessa stepped out of her heels, one at a time, keeping her eyes fixed on Raymond’s, knowing her movements were a performance of sorts. Then, she floated across the living room and slipped into the kitchen. Raymond heard the steady hum of an open refrigerator. “What about you, Ray? What brought you here?”
Raymond flinched. “No one calls me that.”
Glass bottles clinked and the refrigerator door squeaked closed. “What do you have against the name Ray? There are great men named Ray. Ray Charles. Ray Rice. Ray Bradbury. Ray J.”
“Don’t be comparing me to Ray J.” He heard Vanessa’s husky chuckle, then metal bottle caps popping and tumbling to the countertop in the dark. “I just like the name my mama gave me. The full name.”
Vanessa reappeared before him, stepping into the light. She took a swig of her beer, licked her lips, and extended a bottle to Raymond. “Are you a mama’s boy then?”
Raymond’s lips quirked as he took the beer. “Nah. I just agree with you. Family’s important.”
“Well, cheers to that.” Vanessa brought her bottle to Raymond’s and the glass clinked loudly in the near empty room. She sidled closer to him, her ample chest brushing against the top of his stomach and sending shivers through him. Raymond urged himself to be still.
Vanessa sighed and pressed her forehead to his chest in defeat. “Okay, okay,” she said, moving away from him. She fell into the couch cushions and tucked her long brown legs beneath her. “You never answered my question.”
“What brought you here?”
“Born and raised.” Raymond took a sip. The beer was dark, heavy, with a hint of…something vaguely chalky. He couldn’t quite place the taste. He held up the bottle, inspecting the label. Malt. That had to be it.
“Yep. Have you been by the mechanic shop down on Waverly?”
Vanessa inclined her head. “I’ve driven past it.”
“My family owns it.”
Raymond chuckled. He was used to ribbing from outsiders. “It’s nice, all the family-run joints here. The community. Everyone’s got your back. You’ll see how it is, when you’ve been here for a bit.” He took a long draw from his bottle.
As he swallowed, Raymond felt the familiar sensation of alcohol spiking his blood. His chest warmed, his heart pounded, and he made a mental note to slow down. He’d thrown back at least three gin and tonics at The Dell, more than he’d had to drink in a good while.
But then a lick of pain shot through his skull, quick and fierce as an electrical current, rendering him woozy and off balance. What in the hell?
To read the rest, pick up your copy of Lupine Lunes from Popcorn Press!