They met over the gravy boat. Literally. Both sniffing and inhaling, getting closer and closer by the second…
Simi was cold and starving, and the chill air of winter seemed to sink right into her bones, no matter how many layers she’d piled on. Too bad going furry wasn’t exactly the answer to her problem. People might find it a bit disconcerting to see a golden cougar running around the streets of downtown.
So she stayed upright in human form, trudging through the slushy snow, searching for a place to stay for the night. Temperatures were supposed to drop below zero, and she needed somewhere to hide. To eat.
And when she least expected it, for once, God answered her prayers, her salvation emerging in the form of a conversation she overheard. Plodding past a burn barrel, two men were talking about Satisfied Women’s Shelter & Soup Kitchen, complaining they’d get a meal, but not much else. Spouting off that the director was a mean bitch that discriminated against men, saving all the available cots for the female kind.
Simi didn’t have to understand the reasoning. Right now, she and the animal counterpart inside her, Cougar, needed a warm place to stay. And even if it was for just one night, Satisfied sounded like it could offer them a temporary safe haven from the bitter cold. For someone on the run, just like her. So beaten down, broken, brainwashed, that it had taken near death for her to finally have the courage to leave, only to find she really had nowhere to go. At least, not far enough away from Malcolm. She knew he’d find her–it was just a matter of when.
Should she risk it? Risk Malcolm finding her at the shelter? Until now, she’d shied away from those places, stayed under the radar so she wouldn’t be caught. When she’d run, she did it with the clothes on her back, her winter coat the only luxury she’d been able to take with her. Little money, no credit cards. Malcolm had everything under lock and key. Speaking of which, she was down to her last five dollar bill, and with her metabolism demanding more sustenance than she could scrounge from dumpsters, Simi’s stomach imposed its will and made the decision for her–to seek out the shelter.
Cautiously making her way through the entrance to Satisfied, she knew it was a risk, but to her, a much needed and calculated one. Cold weather meant warm food, hopefully more food than she’d had in past couple of weeks. Cougar was restless, hungry, whining every day that it needed more, needed out…just needed something other than sleeping in the cold, digging through trash. Running on empty, the animal in her was tired of hiding.
Standing in line to be served, Simi watched the man holding the gravy boat across from her, glad that Cougar had urged her to seek out the shelter in the first place. He was gorgeous in a rough way. A black five o’clock shadow covered the lower half of his face, the color matching his dark hair, its gentle waves just begging for her to run her fingers through the tresses. His eyes were a piercing green, like perfect emeralds glowing in the dim light of the dining room.
“Gravy, little one?”
Simi jerked, unaware that she’d been staring, deep in thought for so long. She’d backed up the line while lost in her daydreaming. “Yes, please,” she whispered, the sound barely audible to even her own heightened sense of hearing, but nevertheless, she hoped the stranger had heard her.
Cougar whimpered, anxious to eat, like a ravenous animal, wanting to devour the entire turkey she’d passed by. But Simi persevered. She’d be eating well enough for the evening. And if she were lucky, there might even be a bed or a corner she could occupy for the night.
The volunteer ladled the steaming brown fluid over her turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, and with a humble nod, she whispered, “Thank you.”
She moved down the line, taking a roll and silverware from other volunteers. Edging along behind fellow unfortunates like herself, she nearly dropped her tray when a soft touch landed on her jacketed arm.
Mr. Five O’clock Shadow stood there, concern marring his features, brows pinched and lips drawn into a frown. “Hey, it’s okay. Just thought you might want to eat somewhere else. You know, away from here.” He pulled his hand away, ever-so-slowly, holding his palms outward, as if to show he didn’t mean her any harm. “Easy.” The man dropped his voice as she had earlier. “It seems as if you’re not exactly comfortable around people, little one. Or should I call you…little cat?”
She’d guessed right. Or scented, rather. She hadn’t given it a second thought, but she’d caught the hint of something while being served by him. Something earthy and wild and free. Whatever he held within, it was pleased with his human counterpart. She too longed for a bit of happiness. If only she knew how…
She nodded, trying her best to form a smile with her unwilling lips.
“Come along, hon.”
He turned away and she followed. Simi glanced back every so often, checking faces but recognizing none. Didn’t mean she hadn’t been followed. Didn’t mean any of the people in the room weren’t looking for her. Malcolm had spies. Everywhere.
The volunteer reached a door and opened it, beckoning her to enter. She slid past him, not touching. Never touching. It was a rule. One of Malcolm’s many rules.
She shook her head, dispelling the life she’d once known. With Malcolm, anything and everything had rules. Simi knew she needed to forget them now, if she ever wanted to give herself a chance at a fresh start.
She slid into the chair in front of the massive desk occupying the office, then placed her tray on the smooth, wooden surface.