I’d been Catherine’s neighbor for six months now and remained just as captivated by her beauty as everyone else. Equally delicious was the mystery that swirled about her, almost visible to the naked eye.
She liked to keep to herself, and hence lived at the very edge of town. There were houses to one side of hers, but with enough distance between her and them to act as a cushion. She kept a big, beautiful garden where birds and beasts from the surrounding forest seemed at home despite the nearness of the other houses, including mine, which lay across the dirt road.
I had even seen a cougar there once, sitting in the yard and watching the moon. It must have sensed my presence because it turned toward me, the weight of its gaze heavy in the darkness. It seemed more curious than threatening, so I held my ground and watched back. With a flick of its long tail, it licked its chops and turned to prowl back into the forest.
My hands shook with the speed of my galloping heart. If nothing else, living near her home afforded me these bits of excitement.
I could understand why Catherine liked her space since I’d seen men fawning all over her in the past, practically drooling on her hand or arm as they kissed it “in greeting.” Fools. It was obvious they just wanted to taste her.
She always shooed them away quickly and with grace, but in a way that left them looking confused as they shuffled dejectedly away.
I also liked to keep to myself and would never tell her how I felt about her. Nor would I stoop to the swine-like levels most of the men around here did just to touch her. I worked in my garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of her or one of the many fascinating creatures that visited her yard. I never expected her to notice me back.
But then she did. She came bearing a basket of mushrooms called “Hen of the Woods,” along with some homemade bread and a few wild ramps.
She smiled and I had to frantically grasp for the edges of me that wanted to unfurl under her emerald gaze. Silken waves of raven hair cascaded around her shoulders, and her skirt billowed around her ankles. She had bare feet, and even they were dainty and beautiful.
I almost laughed. Feet normally repulsed me.
I gave myself a mental slap and stuck out a hand to her. She took it without hesitation and I gave it a firm, but gentle shake, then released her. My fingers tingled where her cool skin had touched mine.
She handed the basket off to me. Our fingers brushed again and the electricity of it shivered up my spine.
She spoke, and though I’d heard her at a distance, the musical quality of her voice in such close proximity almost knocked me off my feet. “I’m your neighbor, Catherine. I wanted to give these to you as an incentive because I’m hoping you’ll help me with something.”
Curious. “I know who you are!” That came out a little more excited than I’d wanted. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m Victoria. What can I help you with?”
She bit her lip. “I believe it is time to settle down…find someone to spend my life with, you know?” I nodded half-heartedly and she sighed. “Since many of the men here seem to have such piggish intentions, I’ve decided to give them a challenge in the hopes that the right person will prevail.”
She pursed her lips, then continued.
“The challenge is this: I have placed a key to my home around my cat’s neck. The one who is able to obtain the key may enter my home and claim me for their own. But, I do not want my cat hurt. If you see anyone after her, would you watch over her?”
“Of course I will. With my life.”
She smiled, stretching her full rosy lips over moon-white teeth. The green in her eyes glittered in the sunlight. I could not help but feel I’d struck some sort of deal.
“Thank you, Victoria. I hope you live up to your name.”
Of course I would. If any of them tried to hurt the cat, I would make sure they regretted it.
As she walked away, something occurred to me. I called, “Catherine! What’s your cat’s name?”
She shrugged. “I just call her Cat.”
I grinned. “Easy enough. Thank you! And thanks for the food!”
I ate a sumptuous dinner that night with what she had given me. It was a true treat because though I loved wild mushrooms, I knew precious little about foraging. I had a small garden and could hunt, but that was the extent of it.
I watched Catherine’s house as the sun set, and sure enough, a sleek black cat prowled across the low stone wall out front, its back silvered by moonlight. I wondered how I had never noticed her over there before when a sparkling flash at its throat alerted me to the key’s presence.
It had also alerted someone else.
A man crept up on the cat with a net and she appeared not to notice. I jumped up and raced out of my little cottage, slamming the door hard behind me as I bulled my way into the yard.
“Hey, you! What are you doing there?”
The cat raced off and the man cursed at me. He took three threatening steps in my direction, then hesitated and turned away in search of the cat. I felt a bump against my leg a moment later and smiled at the dainty feline twining around my legs. I bent to scratch her ears.
“Good girl.” I winked at her. “Keep away from those men, okay? They’re nothing but trouble and your momma deserves better.” Her green eyes sparkled and I swore she winked back.
The next evening, just before dusk, I saw a man setting a trap. He baited it with a small bit of meat. If she took it, Cat would be snared and possibly injured. As soon as he was out of sight,, I stormed over and dismantled it. Cat came bounding up to me from out of nowhere.
“And where did you come from, pretty girl?” She sniffed the trap. I stroked down her back and she leaned into me, purring happily. “That was for you, but you’re safe now.” I gave her the scrap of meat and she ate it quickly, then jumped down and raced off into the night.
I debated knocking on Catherine’s door, but thought better of it. Night was ruffling its dark feathers and settling heavily over the world. Time to go home. I’d keep my eyes open as long as I could.
This went on for weeks. Each time I saw anyone after Cat, I sabotaged them. One morning, I awoke to find my garden destroyed, likely by an angry man—or maybe several men—I’d intercepted.
My heart sank when I saw it. That would have been food for winter and now I’d have to get everything at market. I wasn’t sure I could afford that. I salvaged what I could for immediate use and removed the rest to the forest to feed the wild animals.
That evening, Cat was frightened by a club-wielding man who leapt out of the bushes. I grabbed the rake I’d been using in the garden and stormed over there. He did not notice me as he scrabbled after her, trying to clobber her over the head. He was desperate, but so was I.
I lifted the rake above and behind me and swung it into his gut as he raced by. He tumbled to the ground with a rough expulsion of air and when he tried to stand, I hit him over the back.
“Stay down, you pig! How dare you try to hurt that poor cat?” I waved an arm toward Catherine’s house. “Do you really think she’d want you if you hurt her pet?” I hit him hard on the legs, the dull ring of the rake a sympathetic echo of his pained howls.
“Get out of here! Tell all the other swine in town that the challenge is over!”
The man crawled away, pulling himself clumsily to his feet at the stone wall and limping back into town screaming that I was crazy.
Maybe I am. And proud of it.
Cat ran over and bumped my legs in her customary fashion, winding her way between my feet. I bent to scoop her into my arms and pulled her to my chest.
“You’re safe now, little one. I’m going to tell your momma that she’s got to call off the challenge. I can’t stand to see you hurt. You’re a sweet little thing and it would hurt your mom if something happened to you. Not to mention my garden has been destroyed now, and I’m worried what else these spurned men might do.”
I sighed and slid the ribbon holding the key up and over Cat’s head. “Let’s go tell your momma.” Cat purred and nuzzled against my neck.
I knocked, then put the key into the lock of her front door.
“Catherine? It’s me, Victoria. I’m coming in! I hope you don’t mind, but I need to talk to you.”
I opened the door and found a lantern burning on her wooden table, its light suffusing the room with warmth. Her home smelled of earth and herbs–a different sort of warmth.
“Catherine? Are you here?” No answer. I looked at Cat. “Where is she, girl?”
Cat meowed and licked a paw, then held my gaze as her fur fell off in a pile of black fluff around her feet. I reached for her.
“Cat! What’s wrong?”
She chirped and her limbs began to stretch, shifting positions on her body. Her face reformed into something vaguely human as her ears rounded and slid down to the side of her head. I watched in horrified fascination, fumbling for the doorknob behind me until I noticed the raven waves rolling down the newly formed shoulders and the face that softened into the beautiful Catherine.
She grinned at me, pulling a nearby blanket around her naked form.
My breath came in ragged gasps.
She smiled, bright and beautiful, and I felt my defenses melting as she stood. The words left my mouth before I could stop them.
“Gods, you are so beautiful.”
She paced her way to me and wrapped her fingers around the hand holding the key.
“Congratulations, Victoria. You lived up to your name, after all.”
My skin heated at her nearness.
“What do you mean?” My heart hammered against my ribcage. It wanted to be hers.
She leaned forward, her chest pressing against mine, to whisper in my ear, “I’m yours if you want me.” I knew she could feel the traitorous pounding of my heart against her skin.
My throat felt swollen. I licked my lips, afraid words would fail me, but managed to find a few.
“It’s not right.”
She brushed her lips against mine and I was sure I would melt from the heat that flooded me.
“Of course it is. You’re the one I wanted to win all along.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “Say yes, Victoria. Say you’ll be mine.”
I swallowed, hard, as her lips drifted back to gently brush over mine.
She grinned, small fangs just visible in the warm light. She purred, “Good girl,” and crushed her lips against mine.