Original SWAT Kats Story

A Mega-Hotfoot

By Cat Matson

(Unfinished) In the midst of a slew of supervillain attacks, T-Bone meets a very unusual girl and takes a very unusual shine to her. But, with secrets, secret identities, and a tangle of villainous schemes, romance is a bit complicated.

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Chapter 3

"What a Tangled Web We Weave..."

“Thanks for the ride, Mayor, I appreciate it.” Talon leaned over the limousine door, smiling at Mayor Manx, who was visibly fidgeting to get to the golf course.

“Happy to do a favor for a new voter and taxpayer, my dear.” She strolled away across the manicured grass as he hustled into the clubhouse to change.

Sprawled in the grass in the shade of a clump of trees on the 16th hole, Talon watched Mayor Manx work his way across the golf course, wryly amused to see that despite the fact that he was playing alone, he was cheating in the most unabashed manner. Making an internal bet with herself over his next shot, she reached out with a flick of kinesis and diverted the ball from landing among a small group of ducklings and their mother swimming in a water hazard, and bounced it up on the green. Manx chortled in delight and waddled around to the ball, lining up on the flag and going through a truly impressive series of facial and body contortions before putting towards the hole. The ball rolled past the hole, and deciding if she was going to meddle, she might as well go all out and repay Manx for the aggravation he’d inflicted on her in their recent land transaction, Talon pushed the ball in a looping spiral that landed it back where it started. Manx looked nonplussed, and swatted the ball back toward the hole with his foot. Talon pushed it right back to where it started again. Lining up on the hole again, he managed to drop it in the cup this time, and she bounced it back out again, noting the smug look on his face was beginning to give way to an uneasy expression. He shot several suspicious looks around the course, but she was out of his line of sight beneath her tree, and the rest of the course was deserted this late in the afternoon. He scooped up the ball, and digging out a small pad of paper, made a quick mark on it before scuttling over to the tee for the 15th hole and placing a different ball atop the tiny wood splinter. Winding up, he swung wildly, and this time Talon bounced the ball off three separate trees, his golf cart, a handy boulder, and a wooden post before bonking him squarely on the forehead with it.

A low laugh behind her diverted her from her sport, and she looked back over her shoulder to spot T-Bone perched halfway up a tree several yards behind her in the clump of woods. Dropping lightly to the ground, he worked his way over to her, carefully keeping out of Manx’s sight. “You’re doing that, aren’t you?” T-Bone said in an astonished undertone, placing a hand on hers and squeezing it as he stretched out beside her in the grass.

She nodded, squeezing his hand back, her expression wicked. “He’s put me through a bit of grief lately, so I thought I’d teach him a lesson about cheating. I admit I’m probably having more fun than he is.”

“I’d say so.” He jerked his head toward Manx. “Look.”

Manx had waddled back to his golf cart and was bumping over the course back towards the clubhouse as fast as the rickety cart would take him. “Oops. I guess I overdid it.”

“It won’t last,” T-Bone assured her, “Manx takes cheating as an act of religion.”

“Why am I not surprised?” She laid her head on his shoulder, and stole a quick kiss.

T-Bone wasn’t nearly satisfied with that, and collected a long, rather involved one before getting to his feet and pulling her to hers. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” He led her through the tract of woods and nearly half a mile around to where the manicured green lawns of Megakat Springs gave way to the dusty scrub of the desert. Sliding down a ridge, they skirted a washed-out gully, and tucked at the far end of it, under a small desert camouflage net, was a vehicle it took Talon a moment to puzzle out. It looked like a snowmobile converted for use in the sand, and was painted in the signature colors of black, red and blue she was beginning to realize marked all the Swatkats’ gear.

“What is that?” she inquired, walking around it to get a better look.

“Razor named it the Sand-kat. We don’t use it much, but it’s the best for desert terrain.” T-Bone tossed her a helmet. “Put this on. The sand’ll flay your fur from your skin otherwise.”

Talon did as he asked, tucking her long braids down the back of her sturdy denim jacket, and buttoning it up over her tank top. She started to hop on the back, but T-Bone wrapped his paws around her waist and planted her firmly in front of him.

“You stay where I can keep my arms around you.”

Talon snuggled in willingly, then pulled off her helmet and turned back to him, placing her hands on his face and giving him one last scorching kiss before donning the helmet again. Revving the Sand-kat up, they took off across the desert, T-Bone’s stunts keeping her torn between gasps and giggles.

After nearly an hour of tearing across the sand dunes, they were approaching the foothills of the mountain range north of the city, and T-Bone began to pick his way more slowly through the gullies and rolling scrub, obviously looking for something. Passing by a gully larger than the last few, marked by a giant barrel cactus, he headed up it, and let the Sand-kat coast to a stop at the base of a tumbled pile of boulders. He lifted Tally off, and rummaged in the compartment under the seat for a heavy flashlight.

“Come on.” Afire with curiosity but willing to play along, Talon climbed up the pile of boulders behind him, and was rewarded by a crevice leading into the hill itself. Flicking on the flashlight, T-Bone led her into another low tunnel.

“You’ve got a real thing for tunnels, don’t you?” Talon teased, placing a hand on his back to catch herself as a rock shifted under her foot.

T-Bone merely shot her a complacent look, and leading her around one last corner, he commented, “Judge for yourself.”

Stepping around him, Talon was struck speechless. The tunnel gave out into a cavern so vast and high she couldn’t begin to see the other side, and the stalactites and stalagmites of the cave were pure, naturally faceted crystal, throwing back the light of the flashlight into a hundred rainbows. As each ray of light struck another crystal, it refracted again, casting more and more tiny rainbows until the entire cave was one dancing mass of color. Setting the flashlight down behind a large crystal shard jutting up from the floor, T-Bone leaned back against the cave wall, well satisfied by the look of rapturous awe on Tally’s exquisite face.

She walked forward into the immense cavern fearlessly, sliding a hand up the faceted face of a crystal stalagmite, gazing around her in reverent silence as she absorbed the silent majesty of the scene. She knelt down and let the crystal sand beneath her feet run through her fingers, even each tiny grain of crystal dust sparkling like a fragment of the sun itself. Cupping a handful of the crystal sand, she blew it out in front of her, and the sand swirled in the soft breath of air and spiraled up towards the ceiling, surrounding her in a cloud of sparkling motes of light. Dazzled by the beauty of it, she spun in place, face upraised, arms outstretched, and the whirl of air spun the crystal motes in a different pattern, mimicking her movement until it looked as if the breeze was dancing with her.

Talon didn’t bother trying to resist. Tossing off her jacket and shoes, she kicked free of the planet’s gravity field and began to dance, her flickering feet treading on the air itself, her body joyous with the exaltation of the beauty surrounding her. Her face ecstatic with rapture, her slim body soaring among the crystal formations, she resembled an angel in flight. T-Bone, still leaning against the cavern wall, realized if he hadn’t been head over tail in love with her before, he would never have been able to resist falling for this airy sprite, dancing among the crystal rainbows as if she belonged there. An interminable time later, she settled to earth in front of him, and a shadow of her radiant joy shining in her eyes as she looked at him.

“How can I say thank you for this?” she asked softly, her face transcendent, a few last grains of crystal sand sparkling in her hair. He shook his head, and drew her into his arms, aching to hold her, wanting to tell her he loved her but afraid to scare her away with the force of his feelings. He tipped her face up and kissed her, trying to put everything he felt into the kiss, wanting more than anything to have her for his own forever. He couldn’t bear to lose her now that he’d found her.

Seeming to sense what he felt once again, Tally clung to him, her arms closing about him in a grip that defied the universe to pull him away. They stood there, locked in each other’s arms, each unwilling to move apart even the few inches it would take to kiss the other.

“T-Bone…” Gathering up her courage, Talon leaned her head back, and looked into his eyes. “I’m falling in love with you, you know.”

“I know,” he choked out, all but powerless to get the words past the lump in his throat, “tell me again, I need to hear it.”

“I love you.” His eyes closed, and Talon thought she saw a tear sparkle for a moment before he kissed her desperately, as if afraid she would vanish now that she’d said it.

“Stay with me, Tally, please. Don’t leave me again. I couldn’t stand it. Stay with me… forever.” His voice cracked, and tears welled up in her own eyes at the force of his request. He looked down at her, appalled he had made her cry, and was about to blurt out a horrified apology, when she shook her head in denial, and pressed her fingers against his lips. “Don’t apologize for loving me. Don’t ever do that.”

Shaking his head, he tightened his grip around her, incapable of speaking or thinking until his spinning world slowed down again. After a while, they found themselves nestled in the crystal sand, with no memory of how they’d gotten there, but content to be anywhere as long as they were together. Her own thoughts in a whirl, Talon reflected dizzily that for two such active people, they sure seemed to be spending the majority of their time together doing nothing but holding each other.

“What did you mean by that request, exactly?” Talon asked at length, her thoughts having settled down to the point where she could think coherently again. “I don’t know where you live, but I’ve been reading all the old city’s newspapers, I understand who and what you are now. You have someone else’s secrets besides your own to keep, and I don’t want to meddle.”

T-Bone tightened his grip on her again, touched she’d gone to the trouble of hunting up the stories of all his and Razor’s old adventures. “I didn’t really think about it from a practical standpoint, I just don’t want you to leave again.” A pause. “You won’t, will you?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t.”

“Well then, how about if I give you my current situation, and we’ll see how well it dovetails with yours, all right?”

T-Bone gazed down at her admiringly. “Are you always this logical?”

“Mostly. I’ve been known to have my illogical moments.” She looked thoughtful. “I think I mentioned that I’d had some dealings with Manx earlier, didn’t I?”

He nodded.

“I bought an old piece of property off the city yesterday, and I’m converting the building on it to a set of 3 apartments, one on each floor. I’m going to take the one on the top floor for myself, and I’ve already rented the one on the second floor to Callie Briggs, who I know’s a friend of yours, so I think we can count on her to keep her mouth shut about us if and when she figures it out, and I’m not sure what I want to do with the first floor anyway…”

T-Bone arched his eyebrows in surprise. “You’ve met Callie?”

She shook her head. “Not in person, anyway, but we had to yak on the phone for hours finishing the deal, and when she found out what I was doing with the place, she had me talked into giving her first shot at the apartments before I knew what she was doing. She’s slick.”

“She is. Where is this place?”

“I’ve only been there twice, so I can’t describe it very well, but it’s on the water behind the city’s salvage yard, if that tells you anything.”

T-Bone choked. “I know where it is.”

Talon looked back up at the odd noise. “Why do I… never mind.”

Regarding her curiously, “Why never mind?”

A smile he couldn’t begin to read quirked over her face. “Beloved, you spent the last hour watching me dance sixty feet above the ground, and you haven’t asked me once how I did it. I like the fact you don’t pry, and I intend to return the courtesy.”

T-Bone took a moment to process that, his mind having jammed temporarily over being called ‘beloved’. “Oh. You’re welcome?”

“Thank you.” Laughing together, they returned to the original topic. “It’s going to take a couple of months to convert the building I bought, it needs plumbing and electrical work, and then it’ll have to be cleaned and painted. In the meantime, Callie pulled some strings and got me a temporary furnished apartment in her building. Which was very decent of her. I loathe hotels.”

T-Bone nuzzled her complacently. “That’ll work. Razor and I worked out a way to get into Callie’s building years ago, in case she was ever attacked there, and we had to get her out.”

“You’ll come stay with me then?”

“As much as I can.”

Talon pinned him with a stern look. “How’s Razor taking all this? I won’t be the cause of strain between you two. You were friends long before I came along.”

“He thinks it’s hilarious. He thinks I’m hilarious, walking around with a stunned expression half the time. And Razor’s not the type to be jealous. He can’t wait to meet you. Oh yeah, and he said to tell you you’re welcome for the locket.”

“What a sweetie. I like him already.”

“He is. He’s the biggest softie in the world, if you can get past his shyness to find out.”

“I’ll make a point of not letting it get in my way.”

“I get the feeling you don’t let much of anything get in your way when you’ve made up your mind.”

“You know me suspiciously well for three dates.”

“I’m clever.”

“Cute, too.” The snappy repartee gave out as they laughed together again.

Talon shrugged elaborately. “Well then, that should take care of that. Problem solved. Wasn’t that easy?”

“I hope it’ll always be that easy.”

“It won’t be… but I’m willing to tough out the bad times if you are.”

“Try and get rid of me.” “No thank you!”

T-Bone looked abashed. “I was kidding.”

Talon melted. “I know, beloved.”

Conversation was temporarily suspended in favor of a shameless bout of necking, and when they came up for air, T-Bone reluctantly broached the subject that they should be heading back. Nodding in equally unwilling assent, Talon gathered up her shoes and jacket, and smiled as she shook crystal motes free of her clothes.

“Stand still a minute,” T-Bone told her, and worked out a small shard snagged in one of her braids. Noting it was a single, perfect crystal, he offered it to her. “Souvenir?”

She accepted it with a smile of thanks, tucking it into an interior pocket of her denim jacket where it couldn’t fall out. “I can’t wait to see where you take me for our next date.”

“No more ‘dates’,” he declared, “we spend what time we have together, and neither gets mad when we have to spend time apart. Deal, Ms. Logical?”

“Sealed with a kiss,” she affirmed, suiting actions to words.

“Vast improvement on a handshake,” he mumbled against her lips.

“Wait’ll you see what I do for an encore.”

“Can’t wait.”

***

A couple of hours later, T-Bone stashed the Sand-kat in the small cave where he and Razor kept it hidden when not in use, and wheeled out the cyclotron he’d hidden in its place.

“So where’s your jet?” Talon asked curiously, “I’ve read all about the Turbokat, but I’ve never seen it.”

“At the moment, in pieces. We had a nasty run-in with DarkKat a couple of weeks ago, and it got slagged pretty badly. Razor decided as long as we had to do all that repair work, he might as well build in a bunch of modifications he’d been thinking about doing for months. It’s going slowly.”

“Not helped by the fact you’ve been missing so much?”

“Don’t get a guilt complex yet. Most of what he’s been doing so far is high-tech engine work, I’m not much of a help there. When we get to the bodywork, then he’ll need me. Most of that needs two sets of paws.”

“Well, if you need an extra hand, I’m a whiz with an arc-welder or an oxy-acetylene torch I’d be happy to help, and you could blindfold me or something so I don’t know where… your base… or whatever… is.”

Genuinely touched by her offer, he settled her on the bike in front of him, and burrowed his face in her hair for a moment. “I’ll tell Razor.” Dawn fast approaching, he regretfully headed towards Callie’s familiar high-rise building. Pulling up in the alley behind it, he collected one last greedy kiss, and promised to come by that evening.

“It’s apartment 15-B. I’ll be waiting.”

“I’ll be there.” She disappeared around the corner, blowing him a last kiss. Sighing, he turned the bike around and headed home. Seventeen floors up, watering the plants on her fire escape, Callie Briggs valiantly stifled her giggles at the sight of T-Bone’s hopelessly lovesick expression, visible even from her lofty vantage point. This certainly promised to be interesting!

***

That night, after plowing through an enormous backlog of work at the salvage yard and then helping Jake remount the Turbokat’s engine in its new housing so Jake could finish the rest of the work on it in place; Chance gave in to Jake’s repeated urgings and showered and headed over to Tally’s. On the way there, he reluctantly acknowledged to himself that he was definitely going to have to cut back on the all-nighters and get some sleep. Even the prospect of seeing Tally couldn’t quite cut through the fog of weariness.

Hiding the cyclotron behind a dumpster in the alley behind Callie’s building, he skinned up the fire escape to the fifteenth floor, and was cursing the fact he hadn’t gotten Tally to show him her apartment window, when he noticed the tiny plant he’d given her, now in a small blue flowerpot, sitting prominently on an otherwise-bare fire escape. Making a mental note to congratulate her on her cleverness, he hurdled the railing and knocked gently on the window. It flew open immediately, and Talon practically dragged him off the fire escape.

“Get in here!” Her mouth fastened over his greedily as his feet hit her kitchen floor, and surprised but more than willing, he returned it with interest. As was becoming usual, they remained locked in each other’s embrace until forced to come up for air, and T-Bone stroked her long hair, flowing free down her back, as they caught their breath.

“Wow. I guess you missed me, too.”

“You have no idea.”

“I’d argue that.”

“Later. Have you eaten?”

“No,” he replied, suddenly aware he was starving as well as exhausted.

“Good. Come on, I ordered take-out.”

Sniffing, T-Bone caught the smell of Chinese food, and his stomach growled loudly in response to the appetizing aromas. Talon led him into a living room furnished comfortably, if rather prosaically, and an array of white boxes, most unopened, were scattered on the generic coffee table. Talon pointed to a plate and set of silverware sitting on the edge of the table, and picking up a spoon and a container of hot ‘n sour soup, instructed, “Eat.”

Nothing loath, T-Bone dived in, and in short order had reduced most of it to a pile of empty boxes and a satiated expression on his face. Tally had eaten her soup and had snatched half the box of pan-fried dumplings for herself, but other than that, seemed content to watch him devour everything in sight. Putting his plate and fork down, he gathered her into his embrace and rested his head on hers. “Feel better?” She studied him for a moment, then commented, “You certainly look better. You were a little haggard when you got here.”

“Too many late nights. Not that I’d trade them for anything.”

“Well, rest now.” She eeled out of his embrace, and pointed a stern finger at him. “You will sit and rest while I tidy up. That’s an order.”

He saluted, amused by her tone. “Yes, ma’am.”

Wrinkling her nose up at him in that same droll expression he loved, she quickly gathered up the empty boxes and containers and tossed them into the kitchen trash. Rinsing the silverware and T-Bone’s plate and putting them neatly into the dishwasher, she returned to find him dead asleep on the couch, his sleeping face betraying his exhaustion.

She smiled down at him, and placed a light hand on his forehead, deepening his sleep with a telepathic touch until she was sure he wouldn’t wake, then levitating him telekinetically into her bedroom and whisking his clothes off the same way, leaving him clad in boxer shorts and nothing more. The sheets and comforter slid out of the way, and she lowered him gently into the bed, covering him up with her own hands. She folded his clothes neatly, then stacked them on a chair beside the bed so he could find them in the morning, putting the extra mask she’d borrowed to bring her tiny plant home on the top. Puzzling over what to set the alarm at, she set it for 5am, figuring wherever in the city he needed to go, he could make it there before most of the city was awake. Peeling out of her own clothes, she pulled on the long, sleeveless t-shirt she slept in and crawled in next to him, feeling him roll over and wrap his arms around her even in his sleep, a deep, rumbling purr betraying his feelings. Perfectly content, she let herself slide into sleep too, warm in his embrace.

When T-Bone woke the next morning, he lay still, for a moment totally disoriented. Then his nose caught the citrus and flower scent of Tally’s hair, and his arms tightened around her, as if his body knew where it was even if his brain hadn’t quite caught up yet. He looked down to see her curled in his arms, her sleeping face breathtaking in repose, his head pillowed on her long hair. A small clock on the bedside table told him it was 4:30am, and knowing he had to leave soon, but unwilling to slip out of her bed without a word, he kissed her gently. She smiled in her sleep, then stretched lazily against him, her drowsy movement telling him at least one part of his body knew very well where it was. Her eyes opened, the long lashes lying on her cheek half-hiding her sleepy expression.

“Good morning.” She leaned her head back for a kiss, her body snuggling closer. “Best in my life.” That got a smile that outshone the sun without trying, and a kiss that threatened to become something quite a bit more. Dying to stay but knowing he had to go, he regretfully pulled a little back from her, her disappointed expression telling him he wasn’t the only one who wanted to spend the morning right where they were.

“You have to go, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I wish I didn’t.”

Her sleepy, sultry smile chipped away at his determination, and well aware if he didn’t leave soon he wasn’t going to leave at all, he kissed her one last time and sat up in bed, looking around for his clothes, spotting them stacked in far neater fashion than he ever did. He slid out of bed, Talon’s eyes taking in the breath of his bare shoulders and the heavy muscles rippling under his tawny fur and black stripes as he dressed. A hungry purr escaped her before she could stop it, not that she wanted to, and T-Bone’s back stiffened at the faint sound. Zipping up his g-suit, he turned back to her and kissed her greedily, his paws caressing the soft fur on her arms.

“Come lock the kitchen window behind me.” Pulling the comforter off the bed, he wrapped her in it, despite the fact it wasn’t that cold. Understanding what he didn’t say, she pulled the concealing folds around her, padding barefoot hand in hand with him into the small kitchen.

“Will I see you tonight?”

Her hungry eyes tempting him unbelievably, he ran a claw over her lip. “Probably not before midnight, but I’ll be here.”

Another sultry smile, “I’ll be waiting.”

An answering smile told her he was counting on it.

***

Sitting in the kitchen back at the salvage yard, Jake heard Chance coming up the stairs, and was relieved to see Chance looked rested, if not precisely pleased, and rightly guessed that getting out of bed had been harder than usual for his friend this morning. “Hey, buddy.”

Chance looked over at him, his expression lightening, and he rummaged in the cupboard for some cereal and a bowl before plopping down in the other chair, pouring a can of milk over a huge helping and devouring it hungrily. “Morning.”

“Last time I checked, it was.”

Chance snorted in amusement, and grinned at his friend, shaking off the last of the faint melancholy at having to leave Tally behind. “Getting up is bad enough without having to leave a beautiful girl behind. It oughta be illegal.”

“In some places I think it is, at least without a marriage license.”

Chance exploded with laughter, and Jake ducked the spray of milk and cereal with a yelp. “Hey, watch it! Enough already!”

“Serves you right for telling a joke like that to someone with his mouth full,” Chance retorted, swiping at the mess with a paper towel. Glad to see Jake wasn’t mad at him for staying at Tally’s, he tossed it into the trash. One of his worst fears was something coming between him and Jake, and as much as he loved Tally already, knowing he’d lost his best friend because of her would ruin what they had together.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” They’d gotten caught up on the work around the salvage yard yesterday, and there were only two cars in the shop for repairs. The shrill sound of the alarm linked to Callie’s communicator overrode his question, and the two of them streaked for the underground hanger, breakfast left behind on the table.

Jumping onto the two-man cyclotron they didn’t use often, Razor was startled for a moment when he caught a faint scent of lemons and almond blossoms from his friend’s flight suit.

“What is that smell?” he blurted out.

T-Bone looked at him for a moment blankly, then sniffed at his sleeve, a faraway look in his eyes.

“Tally’s hair always smells like that, it’s her shampoo, I guess.”

Razor couldn’t help it, he sniggered at the spaced-out expression on his best friend’s face. “I have got to meet this girl!”

“Only if you behave,” T-Bone responded with a grin, gunning the engine and tearing out of the hanger. “Where Callie’s signal coming from?”

Flipping on the radar, Razor studied the tracking signal, and answered, “Megakat Dam.” Cutting in the helmet override, he listened for a moment, then said cautiously, “Ms. Briggs?”

Callie’s voice came back, relief at his reply plain in her voice. “Razor! I’m at Megakat Dam and so is Dr. Viper! He’s got some weird acid-spewing creature with him and it’s eating away at the dam! If it breaks…”

“Half the city will flood in minutes.” Razor finished grimly, “Great. We’ll be there in ten. Hold tight.” “I will be so glad when we have the Turbokat back. This is taking too long!” T-Bone growled in frustration, shooting by a bus full of kittens on the way to school, who shrieked in excitement and waved at them, cheering in shrill young voices.

“Me too, buddy, me too.” Razor called up a schematic of the dam from the on-board computer and studied it, trying to figure the weakest point, knowing that would be where Viper would attack. The problem with Viper was that not only was he dangerous all by himself, those damn creations of his got tougher and nastier each time they fought. If they’d had to fight some of his creations without the Turbokat, they wouldn’t have won. And they were apparently going up against something big enough to devour Megakat Dam, a monolith of concrete and steel half a mile wide and five hundred feet high. Shaking his head, he thought faster.

***

Talon, sitting in front of the TV in her apartment watching the morning news and trying to get a feel for her new home, sat up as the anchor-kat cut short the dissertation on city government he’d been droning on about, and reported crisply, “We have a breaking story. Dr. Viper has apparently taken Megakat Dam hostage and is threatening to flood the city. Our Kat’s Eye news chopper is on-scene, and we are switching you to a live feed.” The screen jumped and wavered, and Ann Gora’s face appeared, hair being tossed wildly by the wind from the chopper’s open side door. “We’re here at Megakat City Dam, and we have confirmed Dr. Viper’s involvement. Deputy Mayor Briggs is negotiating with him, and the Enforcers have cut off the access roads to the dam and are preparing for a full-out attack. We have a camera on the exterior of the helicopter and will switch you to the scene outside.”

The scene switched to a riverbed, the bulk of the dam spanning it covered by something that resembled a headless, very fat, purplish-gray porcupine, save that porcupines didn’t normally come in the same size as 747 jets. The spines dripped a greenish, smoking slime that, even from the view of the helicopter camera, was visibly eating into the concrete dam. Standing fearlessly on the escarpment where the dam met the mountainside, Callie Briggs waited, flanked by Commander Feral and a brace of Enforcers, heavy weapons trained on the beast, a squad of heavy tanks arrayed behind them.

“What do you want, Viper?” Her question appeared to amuse Viper, perched on the dam, several of his plant-creatures hissing and swaying behind him. “Why, Ms. Briggs, I want the same thing I’ve always wanted. The complete destruction of Megakat City and the birth of a glorious new Mega-swamp City! With me as it’s sole ruler!” His manic laughter bounced off the dam and echoed down to the river below, still being fed through the dam’s floodgates. The creature had latched itself into the sluiceways of the dam, but a trickle of water still leaked around the foul thing’s mass.

“This is useless,” Callie hissed under her breath to Feral.

“Keep stalling,” he hissed back, “I’ve got a plan.”

“Oh, joy.” she muttered, “Where are the Swatkats?”

The pair in question were on the opposite side of the escarpment from them, and working their way down to the water, intent on sneaking up on Viper and getting him away from his creature before he had a chance to order it to destroy the dam. It wasn’t one of their better plans, but it was the best they could come up with on such short notice. Adjusting their oxygen masks, they slipped into the water on the upriver side of the dam, letting the current sweep them toward the floodgates, and Viper and his monster.

Chance fought to control a shudder as the water closed over his head. A previous encounter with Viper had taught him to swim at a very late age, and while he wasn’t in any real danger of drowning, he wasn’t very comfortable in the water. Tally’s sleeping face coalesced unexpectedly in his mind’s eye, and taking comfort from her image in his memory, he moved through the water with more confidence, pulling abreast of Razor.

Back in her apartment, watching the TV screen, Talon’s augmented sight easily discerned T-Bone and Razor’s forms under the water, despite the fact they would be invisible in the gloom of the turbid water to any normal kat’s vision. It was obvious none of the kats on the cliffside could see them. Fighting a short, losing battle with herself, her mind reached out and touched her ship.

*Ship.*

A wave of alien awareness answered her telepathic signal.

*We’re going into action. Meet me at…* and a wave of coordinates fed into her ship’s memory.

*On it.*

And Talon disappeared from her apartment, leaving the TV blaring to an empty room.

Back at the dam, Razor let the current carry him up to the dam’s side, and as his and T-Bone’s heads broke the surface, he pulled his mask down and whispered, “Ready?”

“Right behind you.”

“We go with the plan as soon as you get to the top of the dam.”

T-Bone nodded, and sinking his claws into the concrete, began to drag himself bodily up the face of the dam. Razor pulled his mask back on and sank beneath the surface again, this time letting the current carry him through the dam’s sluiceways.

On top of the dam, Dr. Viper was tiring of tormenting his captive audience, and Feral snarled as he saw his chance slipping away.

“The one time he doesn’t feel like gloating all damn day, and it has to be today. Terrific.”

Behind him, Lieutenant Steele stumbled up, saluting with a shaking paw. “The attachments have been fitted to the tanks, sir, we’re as ready as we’re going to be.”

“About time, rookie!” Striding up to Callie, he wrapped a paw around her forearm and muttered, “When I give the word, drop.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Commander.”

As she said it, T-Bone’s head appeared over the edge of the dam directly behind Dr. Viper, and pulling himself over in one quick bound, he threw himself at Viper. Taken by surprise, the impact of T-Bone’s rush carried them both right over the edge of the dam. Struggling fiercely, Dr. Viper opened his mouth to scream to his beast, when the charges Razor had planted inside the dam blew the floodgates wide open. A torrent of water poured over the beast, a deluge that not even the gross lump could withstand the power of. Part of the mass of pulsing tissue tore loose, then the entirety of it ripped away, chunks of concrete and steel plummeting after the creature’s shuddering hulk as it hurtled towards the water below.

Feral turned to yell a halt to his own plan, but Steele’s nerve cracked and he screamed “Fire!” The freeze rays fitted onto the Enforcer tanks’ main guns fired in volley, a few striking the falling mass, but most striking the dam’s already damaged bulk. The dam had withstood Viper’s creature’s acid, and Razor’s carefully planted shaped charges had actually done fairly light damage, despite the torrent of water they had unleashed, but the impact of the freeze rays on the dam’s weakened structure was too much. A crack appeared on the face of the dam, a sound like a thousand pistol shots fired at once, and even as the onlookers stared in horror, a network of cracks spiderwebbed over the surface, the concrete surface fracturing, more and more fragments falling after the beast.

“The city…” Callie whispered in horror. She turned to stare downriver toward the city, and received an even greater shock. Shooting up the river, kicking up a rooster-tail of water five stories high, a silver teardrop larger than the now-destroyed creature was headed straight for the dam. “What the hell is that…” Feral breathed.

The strange ship reached the dam, silvery surface morphing into a manta shape, as it rose effortlessly up to the level of the escarpment. Standing on the surface of it was a blazingly bright blue form, kat-shaped in outline, but the surface of the strange figure rippled and shimmered like water, long tendrils of blue fire trailing from its head like a mane.

As the dam groaned and swayed, larger and larger chunks of it falling away as the force of the water tore at it, the strange figure raised its arms and a wall of fiery blue energy lashed out at the dam, stopping the falling pieces in mid-flight and blocking the falling water. The water behind the pulsing wall of energy geysered up, forming a gigantic wave held in midair by the strange energy, as the cracks in the dam’s surface not only stopped growing, but began sealing themselves, the falling pieces of the dam rising out of the water to fit themselves seamlessly into the whole, the way a film does when run backward.

The onlookers watching in disbelief, the dam’s surface flowed together into one seamless whole, as pristine and unmarked as the day it was built. The figure raised its arms higher, and the gigantic wall of water crashed back into the reservoir behind the dam. The glowing figure turned to look at the crowd on the cliff, the news helicopter hovering over them, even Ann Gora struck speechless by what she’d seen.

*I am T’l’nn. If you need me, I will be there. Your world is now my responsibility.* The voice rang through their minds with the force of a hurricane, and while they watched, the strange silvery ship shot straight up into the sky, disappearing from sight in the blink of an eye.

“Great,” Feral growled, “another vigilante.”

***

Half a mile downstream, T-Bone dragged himself out of the river, coughing water out of his lungs, blood running down his face from a gash on his forehead and half his flight suit burned away by the creature’s acid. Razor, tracking his friend’s locator beacon, spotted him from the road running by the river, and he pulled the cyclotron off the road, crashing through the bushes to his partner’s side.

“T-Bone! Are you ok?” Pulling him the rest of way out of the water, he hurriedly checked for wounds, and was relieved to find nothing more serious than the gash currently running blood over the remains of his g-suit.

“Did you see that? That was incredible!”

T-Bone shook his head. “I didn’t see anything after Viper and I went over the side and that damn thing fell on top of us. Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, but not thanks to that idiot Steele! He destroyed the dam and almost destroyed the city!”

T-Bone turned to stare groggily up the river at the dam shining white in the sun. “It looks ok to me. What happened?”

Razor began to laugh, pulling T-Bone’s arm over his shoulders and helping his friend get to his feet. “You gotta hear this. We’re not the only vigilantes in town any more. And wait’ll you see who we’ve got for a colleague!”

***

Back at the salvage yard, Jake taped a bandage over Chance’s forehead, having cleaned and closed the ragged gash as best as he could. “I still think you should get this stitched, Chance. What’s your new girl gonna think we do around here, anyway?”

Chance shook his head. “Nah, it’ll heal. You know how face cuts bleed. It’s nothing, and if it leaves a scar, so what? My mask’ll cover it anyway. I wanna know what the hell happened out there.”

“I think you’ll get your wish. Here’s the footage the news copter shot.”

They had been watching the TV with the sound off, waiting for a special report on the day’s events. Ann Gora had apparently regained her voice, and was delivering a voice-over as the images of the dam’s miraculous reconstruction played over the screen. “…and for his conduct today that nearly resulted in the destruction of the city, Lieutenant David Steele has been relieved of duty and formally remanded over to the city for a bureaucratic review and possible criminal charges. As for the identity of the mysterious hero calling himself T’l’nn, nothing further is known. However, he has this reporter’s thanks for the courageous, even miraculous, acts performed today on behalf of Megakat City. Over to you, Howard.”

Jake pointed the remote toward the screen and hit the mute button. “I guess that’s it for now, they’ll probably have more on the six o’clock broadcast. How about Steele? What a jerk. Feral’ll have his hide.”

Chance snorted. “Not likely. His family’ll buy his way out of it, the same way they always do. That was our mistake, not having families rich enough to buy off Manx.”

“If being born into a rich family means being a jerk like Feral and Steele, I’ll stick with being a poor Swatkat. I sometimes wonder if Feral didn’t do us a big favor by busting us off the force. We don’t have to put up with bureaucratic reviews, and you know you’d have eventually lost it and pasted that jerk Feral in the face. Or if you hadn’t, I would have.”

Remembering the few, but truly memorable, occasions when he’d seen Jake lose his temper, Chance couldn’t honestly disagree. “Maybe. If it weren’t for that damn bill we owe the city, I’d have to say you were right. Being a Swatkat sure beats being an Enforcer.”

Standing behind his partner, Jake went rigid in surprise. Chance had always taken their demotion from the Enforcers harder than him, perhaps because he thought he was more to blame. Jake certainly didn’t blame him, but he’d never broached the subject directly; only occasionally, like now, talking around it a bit. “It would be nice if we could afford a bigger place, but you’d never leave the Turbokat anyway, flyboy.”

“Well, it’s not like you can fit it in a standard garage or anything.”

Deciding a change of subject was in order, he was wondering what to divert Chance with when last night’s conversation with Callie flashed into his mind.

“Oh, crud!” Jake smacked himself in the forehead with a paw. “I forgot to tell you! We might have a problem coming up. That chunk of property behind the yard got sold. Somebody’s renting it out for apartments. And you’ll never guess who’s moving in!”

“Callie.” Chance rested his chin on his hand. “Tally’s the one who bought the property, she told me about it last night. She’s the one who’ll be living on the top floor.”

Jake’s jaw dropped. “Uh, ok, maybe it won’t be a problem.” Clearly wondering how much he could ask, he prompted, “and you’ve decided to tell her…”

Chance sighed, and waved his partner to sit down. “I haven’t decided, that’s the problem. This is a big deal, no matter how I look at it. Lemme bounce all this off you, you’ve got as much at stake here as I do. What do you think?”

Jake sat down cautiously. “That depends on a few things. How do you really feel about this girl?”

Chance looked up with his heart in his eyes, swallowed, and said hoarsely, “I’m so in love with her it scares me to death.”

“Wow.” Looking pensive, Jake contemplated his friend. “How does she feel about you?”

Chance buried his head in his paws. “As far as I can tell, she’s as crazy about me as I am about her.” He looked up with a gleam of hope in his eyes. “She’s got secrets of her own, but she hasn’t ever lied or evaded the truth to me once. If I ask her a straight question, I get a straight answer. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Yeah.” Jake traced an aimless pattern on the kitchen table with a claw. “If you are serious about her, you have to tell her about us. No relationship can survive that kind of secret. You owe it to her.”

“But what if she leaves, what if it doesn’t work out? What if someone finds out she knows about us? She could be in deadly danger.”

“This is the girl who went up against Molly Mange barehanded and sent her back in pieces? I think you can pretty much count on her to handle herself from the sound of it. And what we do is dangerous, too, you know. You don’t think she won’t be worried sick when you go out? Everything in life’s a risk, Chance, that’s no reason not to do something.”

“I guess. But Jake, she’s in love with T-Bone the Swatkat. What if she doesn’t like Chance Furlong the garage mechanic?”

“Do you think that’s a real worry? Or are you just being insecure?”

“Whoof.” Chance looked at his partner with new respect. “You’re not pulling any punches, are you?”

“Not about something this important to you,” he answered dryly.

“Thanks… I think.” Chance shook his head. “No. Not really. Tally judges people by different criteria than that. She’s no snob.”

“Do you think she’d betray our secret even if she did break up with you?”

Chance’s gaze firmed. “No. Never. She’d die first. I know.”

“Well, pal, it looks to me like you’ve got a bad case of nerves, and not much else. If you want to tell her about us, I trust your judgment. If you want me to meet her first before you tell her, I’ll do that. If you want me to stay out of it any further, I’ll do that, too. We’ll play this any way you like, Chance, but if you want my opinion, if you’re serious abut her, tell her the truth. Straight out. Then let her decide what she wants to do.”

“Somehow I kinda figured that was what you were gonna say. I guess I wanted to hear it from you myself.”

“Glad to oblige.” Standing up, he clapped his hand on Chance’s shoulder reassuringly. “If you’re gonna see her tonight, we should get to work. Viper and his critter sure killed our morning.”

“As long as they didn’t kill anything else. I wish I could have kept my hands on that slippery snake. We both know he’ll be back.”

“So what else is new? Besides, look at the assist we got from that T’l’nn guy. If you want to worry about something, worry about our new competition.”

“The heck with that. Anybody else for Feral to yell at is fine with me.” Chance stood up, pushing his chair back under the table as he did so. “Nice ship, though. That morphing tech was sweet. Could we do that?”

“No way. Nobody’s got that kind of tech around here. Not even Pumadyne. The only place I ever saw anything…” Jake’s voice trailed off.

Chance glanced over at his partner, whose face had paled slightly under his fur. “What?”

Jake gulped. “The only place I ever saw anything like that was on the Aquians’ ship. You don’t suppose that guy’s an alien, do you?”

Struck by this, Chance thought it over. “Could be. He did say our world was his responsibility.”

“Oh boy.”

“Yeah. No kidding.”

***

As Jake and Chance pondered the possibility of extra extra-terrestrials hanging about, the object of their conversation was currently surveying her new acquisition less than a mile away. Tally had gotten the keys to the warehouse by messenger today, together with an apologetic note from Callie Briggs, offering her regrets for not being there to turn them over in person. Tally had chuckled at the understated tone of the note, which had referred to the morning’s hectic events as ‘an unfortunate matter that required my personal attention’. Prowling over the property, she was more than pleased with her purchase.

The 16-acre tract of land occupied a stretch of waterfront on a small inlet off Megakat Bay, but the swamps were far enough down river that she wouldn’t get a bug problem. The only neighbors were a pair of ex-Enforcers who ran the Megakat Salvage yard. Callie had assured her they would be wonderful neighbors, and that she was looking forward to being able to see them more herself. Something indefinable in her tone had made Talon wonder if Callie didn’t have more than a friendly interest in her soon-to-be neighbors.

The property was mostly grassy wetlands meadows, and marshy creeks cutting through it. Birds and small animals were everywhere, and one enterprising raccoon family had set up housekeeping in the gigantic willow tree overhanging the building. The warehouse was a large block of a building, built out of a dark reddish wood that had weathered to a pleasant tone of mahogany.

The three floors on the side facing the river were equipped with immense floor-to-ceiling windows, presumably for accessing cargo, but there Talon was simply going to have the broken panes replaced and the windows left where they were. The other three walls were equipped with large, old-fashioned windows that would have to be replaced, as they were so shrunken in their frames that in the winter there’d be snow on your bed in the morning.

The view across the bay was breathtaking, and from the front of the warehouse, an overgrown grassy bank led down to a pier that would need work before it would be safely usable again. The building was half-overgrown with ivy and grapevines, which was keeping the interior of the building surprisingly cool, despite which Talon had decided to have central heat and AC installed.

The rest of the land she would leave wild, with maybe the exception of a stone patio down by the pier for barbecues on the summer.

The apartments, one per floor, would be huge, and Talon was currently struggling with the decision to cut them up with interior walls, or leave them as immense open spaces. She leaned toward leaving them open, but maybe it would be generous to offer Callie her choice for the second floor apartment. New bathrooms and kitchens would have to be installed, and the entire interior of the building would need professional cleaning and painting. Talon wasn’t about to do all that scrubbing and painting herself. Even with telekinesis she would be exhausted halfway through. Making mental notes as she prowled through the place, she decided with a good contractor, she could move in within two months.

Then the problem of buying herself some furniture could be addressed. She didn’t think the style of furniture she was used to could be purchased on this planet. Nevertheless, T-Bone might get a kick out of the zero-gravity bubble on her ship, if she ever took him to see it.

T-Bone… Talon strolled down to the water’s edge and kicking off her sandals, sat down on the bank and let her feet dangle in the water while she took a good, hard look at herself.

T-Bone was getting very attached to her, which wasn’t a problem per se, but certainly had the potential to be a difficulty big enough to shatter them both. Talon was well aware that she herself was more than infatuated with him, she was beyond doubt growing to love him in a very deep, binding way. But, she asked herself honestly, how’s he going to react to the stark truth that his beloved was something other than normal? A lot more than normal. The few times she’d used her abilities around him, he hadn’t seemed fazed, but a bit of dancing in the air wasn’t having to admit your girlfriend wasn’t the same species as you. Or came from the same galaxy as you, for Nova’s sake. Ugh. Even so, she never seriously considered the thought of trying to hide what she was as an option. To her telepathic-from-the-moment-of-spawning race, hiding your true self from your lover was nothing short of blasphemous. Not to mention you couldn’t lie in a mind-link, and Talon would not accept anything short of a true union of body and mind. It wasn’t in her.

What a mess. She twitched a toe under the water, startling a swarm of minnows, and smiling, she sent a tendril of eco-mantic energy spinning out to the school, coaxing them back to the bank.

The little fish responded to the tendril, following it back as she rezzed up some scraps of bread to toss at them. They nibbled eagerly on the crusts, and she basked idly in the infinitesimal bursts of psychic satisfaction emanating from the minnows. Truce with truth, she acknowledged; if and when T-Bone wanted to push their relationship to the next level, which judging from his reaction on waking up in her bed this morning, was not far in the future, she would take him to her ship and lay her cards on the table. Take him where he can’t run away?, a niggling little voice in the back of her head asked. Squashing that thought, Talon sighed internally and shaking the water from her feet, put her shoes back on and strolled over to her rental car.

She hoped it would work out, her stay on this world would be heavenly if she had T-Bone to share it with. Backing the car around, she headed up the driveway. Might as well go meet the neighbors. Maybe if she dropped Callie’s name (she hated doing that, but there was no denying it was occasionally useful) they’d tell her name of a good contractor who’d be willing to work out here. You never knew unless you tried…

***

Jake wrote out a receipt and wished old Mrs. Purrsian a good afternoon as she drove off in her gigantic old Pouncer. As always, the tiny, hunched-over figure driving the enormous old tank made him smile. Too bad it had taken so long to fix, he could have gone with Chance for that tow on the other side of town, rather than sending him off alone while he finished the repair. Despite Viper, they’d managed to finish early today, and when Chance came back, Jake was going to strong-arm him into going to see his new girlfriend early, too. Noticing a strange car coming up the road, he hoped it wasn’t going to be something to ruin his plan. The car seemed to be running fine, but you never knew. Word of mouth was spreading his and Chance’s skill as whiz mechanics in the strangest places. People were beginning to come from all over the city with work for them. The strange car pulled into the yard, and proceeding slowly up the drive, pulled to a stop in front of the garage.

The slim, dainty beauty that stepped from the car made Jake’s breath stop in his throat. Notwithstanding she was very attractive, a clear, pure perfection of form and face that gave the impression it didn’t rightly belong in this world, but those flowing, white-gold braids exactly matched the shining strand currently ornamenting the Top Kat plaque in their living room. His eyes flew to her neck where a small oval locket hung. So, he was going to get to meet Chance’s girlfriend before he told her about them after all…

“Hello?” Her elfin face was looking at him a little uncertainly, but there was friendliness in that charming voice as she walked toward him. “I’m sorry to bother you, my name’s Talon, Talon Per Astra. I bought the piece of land that borders your place on the back…” Shaking his head as he realized he’d been staring fixedly at her neck, he held out a hand, saying hastily, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Jake Clawson. My partner… and I run the salvage yard. Welcome to the neighborhood. Callie told us all about you.”

Lively green eyes danced at that. “That was nice of her. She’s wonderful, isn’t she? She’s been so great to me, and she’s never so much as met me.” She took his outstretched hand, her paw looking snow-white against his red fur, and squeezed it genially. “I’m going to have to do something extra nice for her when she moves in.” She gave him a delightfully conspiratorial look. “Callie mentioned you were good friends of hers, you wouldn’t happen to know what she’d like for a present, would you?”

Pleased by the request and amused by her mischievous pixie’s attitude, his customary shyness didn’t choke him as much as usual as he squeezed her hand back. “Not off the top of my head, but I’ll think about it and let you know. What can I do for you?”

“Several things, since you ask.”

He held up a hand. “Come inside. The living room’s a mess, but our kitchen’s livable. Let’s get in out of the heat if this is going to take a minute.”

“Thanks. I’d like that.” Beckoning her toward the garage, he led her in through the kitchen door and she, too, gave an involuntary sigh of relief as the stifling heat cut off.

“Heavenly!” She shook her long braids back over her shoulders, the ends of the heavy ropes of hair coiling on the floor as she sat down gratefully. “Not to be banal, but is it always this hot here? I’m glad I bought a house with a built-in beach. It was all I could do not to go swimming.”

“Be careful of the pier,” Jake came up out of the refrigerator with the two last cans of milk in his paws and a worried expression on his face. “It’s not safe. You could get hurt.”

She smiled reassuringly at him. “Already on the list of things to be fixed. Which brings me to the second question. The old warehouse needs a ton of work, electrical, plumbing, some interior construction, painting and cleaning, do you know a good contractor who’d be willing to work out here?”

“Manx Construction does most jobs like that, Ms. Astra, but if you don’t mind dealing with a smaller company…”

“Call me Tally, please! All my friends do. And if we’re going to be neighbors, we might as well be friends straight off. And if that’s ‘Manx Construction’ as in ‘Mayor Manx’, I’d prefer to deal with the devil than with that slimy… worm again.”

“Tally.” Jake acceded, not without a grin at her forthrightness as he handed her a can after she, too, refused a glass. “In that case, let me recommend Furlong & Son. They’re a smaller firm, but they do much better quality work. The materials will be up to code, and you won’t be going back to them every six months for repairs the way you will with Manx. It’s run by my partner’s father and younger brother, and they’re as honest as they come. We’ve got a couple of their business cards here somewhere. I’ll dig one up for you.”

“Great! They sound like what I want. The exterior of the building is fine, and I want the grounds disturbed as little as possible. I like the animals out there.”

“Watch out for a raccoon family. They hit our garbage cans once in a while.”

Talon’s laugh rang lightly through the room. “I saw them. Half-a-dozen little black masks poking out of the hollow in the big willow in the side yard. I thought they were adorable. It’s hopelessly female of me, but they were so small and cute and fluffy.” Her voice trailed off into a baby-talk croon, and Jake laughed in spite of himself, at the droll self-mocking expression on her lively face. He’d never met someone whose every emotion was mirrored so clearly in her features. Her expressions flickered over her face like summer lightening.

“Well, that’s question number two solved. Question three, Callie says you guys are great mechanics. I’ll need a new car for getting around, so I can get rid of that rental clunker I’m currently stuck with. Where can I find a nice old zippy sports car that won’t cost me a small fortune? Something classic without being pretentious, that won’t have trouble with the road, that you can fix for me if it has trouble.”

“Give me a minute for that… there’s an old newspaper vendor on the far end of Main Street who’s looking to sell his old Korvette, but he keeps swearing he’ll only sell it to someone who’ll love it. He’s turned down a bunch of good offers, but he might sell it to you. The rest were rich tomkats with mid-life crisises, and punks looking to drag race.” Talon gave him a startled look. “You don’t mean Pops Perkins, do you?”

“You know him?”

Talon smiled a little wryly, her look indicating a private joke, but remembering Chance’s description of her run-in with Molly, Jake thought he might know why.

“I’ve been to his newsstand once or twice, he seemed like such a kind kat.”

This description of crusty, irascible old Pops made Jake want to choke on his milk, but with Pops’ eye for a pretty kitty, Chance’s new girl probably had him purring before she’d even opened her mouth.

“We’re on a roll here. Question four, last one, what can you tell me about the Swatkats?”

Thrown by this question, Jake stalled for time. “The Swatkats? Why do you want to know about them?”

“I saw them on TV this morning. That had to be the gutsiest thing I’ve seen in a good long while. I’m fascinated!”

Jake opened his mouth and was saved by the kitchen clock, which rang five.

“Oh, spit and dirty socks!” Talon looked genuinely irritated. “I’m sorry, Jake, I have to run. I have to meet with the city planning commission at 5:30 for the building permit for the warehouse. I can’t hire anyone without it. I think Callie must’ve twisted a few arms to get me an appointment on such short notice. I shouldn’t be late.”

Standing up as she did, he shook his head in denial. “Not a problem. Hold on a sec.” He rummaged in the catch-all drawer in the cupboard, and came up with a wrinkled business card. “It’s in rough shape.”

Talon took it and turned it over in her slender fingers. “I can read it fine. Can I say you referred me?”

Jake blinked in surprise. “Sure.” Deciding she wouldn’t be offended, he asked, “Why?”

She smiled up at him, as Jake realized anew how slight and sylph-like she was. Even Callie would top her by an inch at least. “Credit where credit is due, my friend. They might like to say thank you.”

Thinking it over, Jake had to admit she was right. Chance’s dad and younger brother didn’t often get the kind of big jobs like hers sounded to be, and Mom Furlong would at least want to drag him and Chance over for supper to express their appreciation.

Walking her out to her rental, she shook hands again, told him he, his partner, and Callie were invited for a barbeque as soon as she and Callie moved in, and drove off waving.

Bemused, he walked back into the kitchen and was making out a grocery list when Chance wandered in twenty minutes later. As he dropped into the chair recently occupied by his dainty beauty, his expression changed so radically Jake was startled.

“What?”

Chance shook his head. “I think you’re right about me. I’m so infatuated I’m starting to smell Tally’s perfume, or shampoo, or whatever it is, everywhere I go.”

Jake smirked at him. “Sorry, pal. Your lady was sitting in that chair not half an hour ago. Why didn’t you tell me she was so small? She’s no bigger than a minute. Sure is a knockout, though.”

Chance looked so sideswiped Jake was torn between laughter and sympathy. “Relax, Chance. She is going to be our neighbor. Callie apparently told her a bit about us and she stopped by to say hi. I gave her your dad’s business card. She was looking for a contractor to do some work on the building over there. Sounds like a nice gig for him and Jeff. Jeff might be able to afford that engagement ring for Tawny he’s been lusting after.”

Chance sagged in his chair in relief. “I think I’m glad I wasn’t here.” He looked over at Jake, his expression curious now. “What did you think of her?”

“You’ve got better taste than I gave you credit for. She’s a winner all the way. I actually talked to her for a good twenty minutes without a single panic attack,” he joked. “Practically the first thing out of her mouth was did I know what Callie would like for a surprise present, because she’d been so nice to her. I guess they hit it off pretty well.”

Unsurprised that kindness to Callie had inclined Jake toward Tally, Chance smiled briefly. It was like her to make sure a gift was something the recipient would enjoy. Keeping those names straight was going to be fun, though. Both of them in the same sentence would tie anybody’s tongue up. Heck, both of them in the same room would tie anyone’s brain up. That much beauty, intelligence and grace in one place would be enough to stun any tomcat who wasn’t dead. And he wouldn’t make any large bets about that, either.

Jake hadn’t finished. “Anyway, work’s over for the day now that you’re back, so you are going to shower and get changed and be waiting for Tally when she gets home from her meeting with the city planning commission. She said it was at 5:30, so you should have enough time to beat her home.”

Chance threw him a grateful look as he got up. “Thanks, Jake.”

“You can thank me by moving faster.”

Next Chapter

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