Nervous breakdowns weren’t meant to have erotic overtones, she thought, screaming as if everything was real and her life depended on it. A white tiger stalking through her brain was one thing, weird, but whatever. Trying to seduce her was something else entirely and the beast was definitely trying to woo her, into what she had no idea and didn’t want to know. The animal was a regular visitor in her dreams, had been for a few years. She was used to it being there while she slept, but not when she was at her new job and not speaking words she could understand.
That was mortifying and well beyond normal.
Animals roar, they don’t talk, but apparently her tiger verbalized its needs. What she didn’t get was why it cried out very plainly for her to “come back” over and over again. Come back where? Come back to its side? She couldn’t remember ever visiting a zoo much less seeing a white tiger outside the pages of National Geographic or the Animal Channel. They weren’t something she passed on the street every day.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to settle down and lower her heart rate to a normal pace.
One thing she was sure of was sitting at the lunch table and drifting off into dreamland was a stupid mistake. It was something she didn’t want to do while still introducing herself to new workmates. As a whole, today had been going really well. The work was interesting and, despite hating change, she was glad she’d made the move. Unfortunately, the day had suddenly taken a hard turn to the weird and wrong.
Perspiring, she used her napkin to wipe her forehead and took the opportunity to see if anyone was paying attention to her. Maybe, if she was lucky, the scream and decent into madness had all played out in her head.
Nope, from the wide-eyed looks she was getting it would seem luck was not in her corner.
“You okay, Cassie?”
“Oh yes, yes, sorry everyone.” With a smile pasted on her face, she looked around the table at the faces of her worried and anxious workmates. They’d all been enjoying lunch together until she’d screamed in terror at something no one else could see. “I guess my mind traveled into uncharted territory.” The small group of men and women tittered and returned to talking while she put her hands on her heated cheeks. It was a useless move to stop the blush staining them from spreading further, but she did it all the same.
Groaning silently with embarrassment, she reminded herself how, until then, the altered reality only happened at home, while she slept. Realistically, she could no longer blame her weird tiger dreams on her problems with change. Maybe she should talk to a mental health professional.
Why couldn’t she be like everyone else?
Why did she have to embarrass herself by daydreaming about her white tiger while sitting in the company’s air-conditioned and packed lunchroom?
Flustered, she fussed with her salad before eventually excusing herself early, telling her lunch mates she needed to make a couple of calls before heading back to the lab. Actually, what she needed was a few minutes alone to pull herself together. She made her way to her office, all the while focused on controlling her breathing and heartbeat, which were still unsettled from the recent trip her imagination had taken.
Sitting at her desk, she opened a file, and pretended to read while her mind raced through what had happened. There was something going on that wasn’t right. If she had any doubts in leaving the hectic pace of the hospital floor for the quiet one of research, they were long gone. She couldn’t be more thrilled with her decision to accept Dr. Winton’s offer. While change was not her thing, the new job had actually been a good decision.
On her first day at work, she’d been placed on a team looking into diabetes, specifically childhood type 1. They were trying to pinpoint the problem gene or genes in a bid to eradicate or, at the very least, find a means to treat the disease. It was exciting and rewarding, as well as slow and methodical work, with hours spent alone in a clean room. The people in her group were great, focused on the job at hand, and yet were still real. Not for one minute did she feel like the new kid on the block. It had been an easy transition; she couldn’t have asked for better.
Unfortunately, it meant the only problem she’d had all week was between her and the tiger. For almost a year, he’d offered her comfort through her imaginings, and she was thankful. Suddenly he’d moved out of her dreams to take up residence in her brain, ensuring he was with her whether awake or asleep. She was scared on many different levels and, because she wasn’t sure how to handle it, she’d tried to ignore his presence.
Apparently that tactic was no longer an option.
All week the white beast haunted her. It was the visits while she was up and aware that upset her the most. Everything would be moving along normally, her eyes and brain focused on something, maybe a printout full of data, and the white tiger would be there waiting for her. Or, like what happened in the lunchroom, her mind would travel and there he’d be, coming for her. Sometimes an aura of impatience surrounded him and eventually he’d make his presence known while growling and pacing. Other times he’d be there, quiet, curious but not intrusive. Then there were a few times when he’d chuff in her ear during moments of building passion. Those were the more curious moments. Whenever they happened, she was drawn to him, and wanted to hold him close. Then she’d remember he was a ruthless beast and a figment of her imagination.
The worst time was when she believed he spoke to her. She didn’t know why her subconscious expected and accepted a tiger could speak, but it did. The words were always the same and clearly enunciated as they kept an ongoing, unrelenting cadence beating through her body. Come back? That implied she knew the tiger, personally, and that wasn’t possible. People and animals did not communicate.
Was she losing her mind? Becoming schizophrenic? Obviously something wasn’t right in her head, and it was getting worse since the tiger never truly left her alone. Even right then, as she was internally freaking out at her desk, he was there waiting for something from her, and she didn’t have any idea what it was. However, she was absolutely certain about one thing. It was becoming increasingly clear, the cat’s tolerance for her to do what it wanted her to do was running desperately low.
It was odd how she’d never seriously questioned his presence in her dreams before today. He was always there, giving her comfort, but something had changed because he wouldn’t leave.
Mentally, Cassie pushed away from the tiger sitting in her mind, and turned her focus back to work.
I’ll question the state of my mental health later. The minute she spoke those words to herself, she swore a growl reverberated through her soul, bringing a chill to her flesh along with it. Her first response was to snarl back at the tiger and doing so earned her a round of affectionate chuffing, which put her right back where she’d been.
She was questioning where her sanity had gone because it clearly wasn’t present.
* * * *
The next morning Cassie was lying in bed, panting for a breath, her heart pounding wildly after another visit from the white tiger. She couldn’t simply accept his presence any longer. The continuation of a record breaking heat wave made matters even more difficult to handle. The weather had escalated to dangerous levels, with massive power outages, which seemed to have put all the city’s residents on edge. She wasn’t sure if it was the heat or the dreams, but it was too much for Cassie to take. It was time she found a doctor who would listen to her concerns about having an imagined tiger camping out in her head.
Trying to relax, she fluffed up her pillows, and mentally approached the issue that left her questioning her connection with reality. When she found no answers to any of the questions, Cassie got up and made her way to the shower, bypassing the warm and going straight to cold.
With her new job came a different schedule. It was her first day off and she needed to do some errands. Thinking about the freedoms she’d gained by taking a Monday through Friday job made her smile. It had been a long time since she’d had an entire weekend off. She wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Actually, maybe she’d get the errands over with, and do something different like catch a movie. Theaters usually had great air conditioning and the weather reports she’d heard last night had called for another hundred-degree plus day.
However, before she made any decisions of what to do, she wanted to read the newspaper. All she’d done during the past week was stay on top of the headlines and she was eager to read in depth about what was happening around the world. A small pleasure of hers was to have the weekend paper delivered to her front door. She didn’t have to get dressed and walk down the block to the corner shop for one; all she had to do was open her door and there it was.
After drying off, she made her way back into her room to get dressed.
Since it was already hot, she decided to forgo both bra and panties until she had to go out. Given the choice, she didn’t want anything binding her in the hot weather if it wasn’t necessary. She put on a short spaghetti-strap cotton dress and was ready to start the day by settling on the couch to relax with the paper.
Making her way to the front door, she unlocked and unbolted it, pulled it open, only to be stunned speechless.
Leaning against the stair rail outside her apartment was Mikhail Ivanovich, in the flesh, and he was holding her paper. Even in the sweltering temperatures, he looked cool, calm, and utterly handsome. The man looked sexy in a simple white t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers without socks. It wasn’t fair. Dressed to the nines or casual like he was with his white hair tamed and framing his sexy eyes, he always had the ability to ignite her passion and need to be fulfilled.
“You’ve had your hair cut. It looks good.”
Not bothering to wait for an invitation, Mikhail walked in, and closed the door behind him. She stood there staring at him as he sat on her couch and looked around her small studio apartment. It was difficult to be there with him, especially knowing how little she’d meant to him before, and how easily he’d been able to walk away. She was in the midst of a pseudo-reunion she’d never expected and it hurt too much to want it to continue.
“I’ve always thought about how perfectly your home reflected your personality. The space is soft, welcoming and friendly, with great style, and a healthy respect for the past.”
“Yes, well, um, thank you.”
“We need to talk.”
“You walked out on me and I’ve moved on. I don’t think there’s anything more to be said.”
“You’ve moved on? You have a lover?”
Obviously not and she knew by not answering the question, she’d given him an answer.
“Oh come on, you have a healthy sex drive. I don’t believe you’ve gone without a woman for a year.”
“My hand takes care of those needs as best it can and is easily encouraged by my memories of you.”
Cassie’s mouth dropped open in shock. Mikhail may have had his secrets and broken a promise, but he’d never once outright lied to her. She had to believe what he was admitting. When it finally settled in her mind he hadn’t gone out immediately to replace her, she started to wonder even more why he’d left in the first place. She hadn’t been totally wrong; they had been good together. Wanting an answer was one thing. Pride, however, had her saying something entirely different.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. Keeping the truth from you meant I couldn’t be with you and I’m tired of hiding who I truly am from you. If, once I tell you everything there is to know and you want to stay away, I’ll have to live with your decision. However, since our last night together, the chance you might not have left me after hearing what I have to say, tears my heart and soul apart.”
“What do you mean?”
“I kept an important part of myself from you and have always regretted doing so, no matter how much of a necessity I believed it to be.”
“Not here. Come with me out to the estate. Without traffic, it’ll take a few hours but it’s a beautiful drive, and there we can have some privacy.”
“I don’t know.”
“We have to talk, Cassie. Let’s make it in as comfortable an environment as possible.”
“Please, Cassie, give me a chance to make it right between us again.”
When did she take the stupid pill? The man had already broken her heart and spirit; why give him a chance to do more damage?
Once before she’d found the strength to trust him and had given everything to him, only to have him cast her aside without a second look. Suddenly he shows up looking as sexy as ever, crooks his finger, and she’s ready to welcome him back? The ability he had to bring her lust to the surface as if they’d never separated was daunting. Mikhail Ivanovich always had been able to work a special magic on her body.
No, she refused to be ruled by her physical needs.
But, wasn’t there always a but? If there was a chance to be a whole person again, happy, and excited about life, wouldn’t she be wrong to ignore it? They didn’t have to get back together to once again feel good about where her life was headed, but answers would definitely help. Besides, wouldn’t she always wonder if she’d made the right choice? What would it hurt to at least hear him out? Maybe then she could finally move on.
“Do you promise to bring me back the minute I say it’s done?”
“Sounds fair enough.”
She twisted every scenario around and went over the many potential pitfalls, but she kept going back to the chance to be whole again.
“Okay. I’ll go change.”
“Ummm, don’t bother.”
“You look fine and we’re only going to the estate. Put some sandals on and we’ll leave.”
A few minutes later, he helped her into the passenger side of his low-slung black convertible sports car. It was him, a sleek classic. The roof was down and the black leather burned her body when she first sat down. With a hiss over the hot seat, sweat started to gather and glue her to the black surface. Putting on her sunglasses and the baseball hat he offered, she kept quiet as they made their way out of the city, across the George Washington bridge, and drove north to where his family had a vast spread of property.
Eventually they moved off the motorway and took smaller, quieter roads. The wind blowing through her hair made it feel like the temperature had lowered considerably. She wasn’t delusional or operating under any false hope. No matter how cool Cassie believed she was in the car, it was going to hurt when she finally peeled herself from the seat. Until then, she’d enjoy the ride.
Looking at the hills looming on either side of the road, she allowed her mind to drift back to the first time she’d come to the estate with him. It had been an incredibly nerve-wracking experience. Even though they lived in the same city, they’d traveled far from her territory to meet the entire Ivanovich clan. She’d been worried about what they’d think of her, especially considering her childhood was nowhere near being ideal. They’d all been nice and welcomed her with open arms. They’d made her feel a part of the family, something she’d never experienced before.
Cassie knew they’d arrived once they started following a massive stone wall for several miles. When he made a right turn and stopped before a large steel gate, she held her breath and waited for the best part of arriving. He pulled a device out of the center console, pressed a few buttons, and the gates silently opened. As they drove down a paved private road lined with ancient oaks, she released the air she’d been holding, and an essence of calm spread through her.
“I love this stretch of road. The canopy of trees makes it peaceful and beautiful, kind of majestic.” She took off her hat and glasses to more fully experience the wonder of nature.
“It was the first thing my mama noticed about the place. She says the trees were what kept drawing them back to see the property before finally deciding it was exactly what they were looking for. She says every home should have such a grand yet welcoming entrance.”
“Is your mom here?”
“No, she’s at the beach house, and my brothers are gone as well. No caretakers or guards; we’ll be alone.”
Mikhail didn’t stop at his house. Instead, he drove further on and pulled to a stop near the pond. It was well hidden from the road at the bottom of a small hill and surrounded by trees. They walked down the slope to the water’s edge. Beneath the copse of trees’ heavily leafed branches lay lush green grass. The natural surroundings and cooler temperatures were better than any building or mechanical box could offer.
Settling down on the ground at the rim of the pond, she slipped her sandals off, and dipped her feet in the cool water. The air was warm only not nearly as stifling as it had been in the city. Summer in the countryside was peaceful and, without thinking about it, her mind opened the door to set free the most painful event in her adult life.
“Right here is where you told me you loved me and wanted to be with me forever.”
“Yes, and I still do.”
“What happened, why did you leave me?” She couldn’t help the tears that slipped down her cheeks. “Was it because I wasn’t posh enough? I know you’re rich and powerful, and I’m not. Did it embarrass you to be seen with me, was that it? You couldn’t go out with me once you were put in charge of Ivanovich Holdings? When we were together I didn’t think it mattered. Maybe it did and you never said anything.”
“No, you’re perfect the way you are.”
“Oh please, I know I’m far from perfection.”
“To me you’re perfect.”
“Stop it! You know what makes your walking out the worst thing you could’ve ever done to me? You knew about my difficulties in trusting people and swore you were different from my parents. I was happy and truly believed you weren’t anything like them. I actually relaxed enough to let you inside my heart, only you turned out to be like everyone else. You walked away from me. Why? Am I such a bad person you couldn’t imagine another day with me?”
“No! It’s me, my family,” he finally confessed. “And you are perfect.”
Watching him closely, she realized he wouldn’t look directly at her. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the pond. “I’ve told you about making the move from Russia. What I haven’t told you about is our family history, and how some of it remains with us today. Some of our customs are unusual; it’s a different culture. Then there are the ones which are unique to my family, the Ivanoviches.”
She couldn’t help but notice how hard he struggled with what he wanted to say and hated to see it. He was usually incredibly strong and assured of what he was doing. She was taken aback by the fact he was showing her a side of him she hadn’t seen before. Vulnerability. Unable to stop herself from offering him support during a difficult time, she reached out, took hold of his hand and held it in hers. He may have walked out on her, on them, but her heart had never stopped loving him.
“Take your time. I’m listening.”
“I love you, everything about you.” Leaning over, he pressed a soft kiss on her lips.
Even though she wanted to say something, she didn’t. Cassie wanted to forgive him everything, to feel whole again, only this time she wasn’t going to let her guard down so easily. Instead, she waited for him to finish what he’d started.
“It began way back in the thirteenth century when the male members of my family were injected with the blood of a white tiger.”
“Wait, what did you say? White tiger? Injected?” Surely he hadn’t said what she thought he had? Considering her dreams, it was too much of a coincidence to be true, except he never lied. “Why would anyone do that?”
“We were then and remain today, a commanding clan back in Russia. The Ivanoviches claim honor and faith as our mantle, and wear it proudly. The sense of responsibility to our people is in our blood. It demands respect from others and it’s an element that often appeals to those who are seeking to lift themselves further up the power ladder. On the first day of a new ruler, before they formally accept the position, we offer them either neutrality or support, in exchange for the blood.”
“Me. I’ve acted as the Ivanovich representative since Yeltsin.”
“You were a baby.”
“No, I was six.”
“So young. And you still do it today?”
“Yes, because I have no sons to carry on the tradition. For centuries, my family’s special relationship with whomever was in control, be they royal or a formed government, remained a well-kept secret. Rumors started circulating during the fall of the Soviet Union about the part we played in determining the success of a ruler. At such a time of political and social upheaval, many people took hold of the rumors, twisted them into lore, and drew their own conclusions. Our white hair seems to add credence to the many theories. They also believe it’s why some of us have difficulties living long lives. The turbulence and rumors caused my parents to pick up and move us—what?”
Cassie looked perplexed. “I don’t understand. What do you mean by your family having difficulties living long lives?”
“My father was the first Ivanovich to reach his fifties.”
“That’s it, isn’t it? You walked out on me because you didn’t think you had long to live, didn’t you? It had nothing to do with the dangerous political games you play or anything else you dabble in. It was all about a chance you might die young and would therefore leave me alone. I’m right, aren’t I?”
Mikhail nodded and his fierce blue gaze never flickered away from hers.
“You think my life would be better without you? For any length of time?” She started to feel angry at how he’d made such an important decision without talking to her about it.
“What more could there possibly be? I’m telling you, Mikhail, I’m really pissed off if what you’ve told me is truly the reason why you walked away from me. For goodness sakes, I’m an adult who can make up my…”
While she continued venting, he stood up beside her, and she wondered if he was going to walk away again. Doubting he’d do something so blatantly wrong, she covered her eyes from the sun to help her see him clearly while she continued the tirade. Cassie wasn’t sure what he was doing until suddenly she had to stop. In a few chaotic minutes, she stood up beside him, and watched as everything she knew to be real and accepted as normal was turned inside out and twisted beyond recognition.
The first thing she tuned into was sharp cracking noises. It was like twigs breaking nonstop. She looked around and couldn’t see anyone except Mikhail, and he personified pure horror. Speechless, Cassie couldn’t understand what was happening before all his clothes were shredded by the contortions of his changing body.
Bones popped, stretched the flesh and protruded out in places they were never meant to be, and then they fused into a new shape. The sounds coming from his body changed to a more intense grinding and she was sure he was going to explode right there in front of her. When the volume lowered, she was able to hear his groans which had to be an indication of pain.
“Mikhail!” Shock marked her voice as it slipped out through the trembling fingers covering her lips. How could she help him when she didn’t understand what was happening?
The tears gathering in her eyes ran down her cheeks. He—the man whom she loved despite all the hurt he’d caused her—was gone.
Somehow, Mikhail had been replaced by the white tiger from her dreams.