Jerret took a sip of his soda before he set it down. His fingers slid idly over the condensation on the glass as he stared around the restaurant at all of the happy couples. He was seated at a small table in the back, which was obviously not a prime date location, which was fine because he wasn’t on one. Even if it was Valentine’s Day.
Especially because it was Valentine’s Day.
Instead of being holed up in his apartment where he’d spent the sappiest holiday of the year last year, he was at the closest restaurant to his apartment, Carl’s Cafe. He actually liked the food here; the burgers were great, and they had bottomless fries and soda. Benny always nagged him, saying he was going to get fat eating there but he did enough swimming and working out that, so far, he didn’t carry a spare inch over his sculpted six pack.
Not that it mattered; he didn’t have anyone to impress anyway.
Jerret sighed. He knew he was acting like a whiny queen, but he really didn’t want to be out watching all the loving couples exchanging gifts and kisses. They were all fooling themselves anyway; the whole institution of forever love was a crock. He’d realized that when his last lover up and left him two years ago to the day. Of course, that was also when Jerret had called him and found out from the twink he was screwing that his so called partner was a cheating asshole.
All because his ex couldn’t handle the fact that Jerret was close to his best friend. He had been convinced that the only way two men could be that close was if they were screwing each other. Right.
So he was fine with one night stands. He didn’t need any relationships. Of course, once his kind found their mates they were trapped. Biology paired two Carthera up and then they were stuck with each other. Love didn’t have squat to do with it. Jerret didn’t want to have anything to do with mating either; it brought nothing but trouble.
Jerret looked up, hoping his food would be there soon. Since he’d been forced to come out, he figured he might as well treat himself and order the deluxe burger and a double serving of fries. He’d been waiting for a good twenty minutes, but then again, every table in the place was full; the cooks were probably swamped.
He was staring toward the front of the cafe when a large man came in, ducking down to fit through the door. Jerret’s eyes widened; the man was immense. There was no way there were two guys in town that big. He had to be the same one Jerret had watched from his living room window early that morning.
The medium length hair just brushing the man’s shoulders was the same too. That had been what had caught Jerret’s eyes at first, the way the rare February sun glinted on his hair and made it shine like liquid gold. Then it had been the impressive width of his shoulders under his black coat that made Jerret itch to grab hold and nibble on them as he rode the man. His walk had been confident as he moved down the sidewalk; like he had somewhere to be and he’d get there no matter what. He could only imagine what the man’s body would look like in bed, moving over him.
Jerret had watched until he turned the corner and was lost to sight.
Now that same man was moving toward him with the same confident strut. He couldn’t ogle the muscular ass moving under the jeans that fit him just right, but every step pressed strong thighs against the thin material. Jerret licked his lips subconsciously as his stare finished traveling up the tall body until he met the stranger’s eyes.
He stiffened, then jerked his eyes away to stare at the dessert menu on the little table display.
“Ahem.” A female cleared her throat right next to him.
Jerret looked up reluctantly. “Yes?” Please don’t let her ask what he thinks she is going to ask. He completely ignored the man standing beside the hostess he hadn’t even seen approaching.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but all the other tables are full. I was wondering if you would mind sharing yours with Mr. Calix?”
Jerret could feel heat prickling his face. Share his table with the same guy who had just caught him ogling? He didn’t risk glancing up; he expected a glare or worse, because now that they were standing next to him, Jerret could tell he was no man.
Jerret pushed his chair back from the table and moved to stand. He would just give the male his table.
“It’s alright.” The deep rumbling voice sounded as if it came straight from the wide chest. “No harm to you is intended, I promise. I would appreciate sharing your table, but you don’t have to leave.”
The hostess frowned as she glanced between them. Jerret hesitated to agree or leave, but someone at his table would be good in case Brad waltzed by on his way to the party he was going to. It would almost make his lie of a blind date true.
There was something strange about the scent filling his nostrils that urged him to stay as well.
“I’m just here for dinner.”
Most Tigers would have been offended that Jerret hadn’t taken them at their word when they promised no harm would come to him, but the strange male’s voice wasn’t angry. In the clans a male’s honor was rigorously defended, any slight called out and dealt with; often by violence.
Jerret was glad they were in public; the male would hardly attack here, but he had to make a decision and do it immediately. Even if the larger male hadn’t taken offense before, he might if Jerret waited much longer to extend an invitation for him to sit down.
Clearing his throat, Jerret spoke, still not quite sure of his decision, “Please sit down.”
He wanted to be ready just in case, so he didn’t push his chair closer to the table as the large male sat down. “Please have the cooks hold my food until Mister. . .Calix was it?” He glanced at the male from the corner of his eye, seeing him nod. “Until Mr. Calix’s order has been taken and prepared. I’d hate to be rude and eat in front of a hungry man.”
The truth was that he’d hate to have his head taken off for eating before the larger Carthera. A male might let a female with cubs share his food or perhaps even eat first, but he knew better than to risk it.
“Not a problem. Molly will be with you in a moment and can take your order.” She set the menu in her hands down on the table in front of the large male.
Jerret’s hands were clenched together under the table as the hostess walked away. He could really use a drink of his soda to wet his bone dry mouth, but he didn’t dare reach for it.
“You don’t have to act like that,” Mr. Calix told him. “I’m not feral or going to hurt you or anything.”
He just gave a jerky nod. Sure he wouldn’t.
There was a loud sigh. “You’re a clan Tiger, aren’t you?”
“No,” Jerret paused and the continued in a bitter voice, “not anymore.”
“But you were? That’s why you’re so afraid of me? Think all the rumors are true, do you?” The male’s voice was rising in anger already, and his hands were clenching into fists. So much for Jerret not having anything to fear from him.
Jerret’s leg muscles tensed at the disdain and anger in the man’s voice. His hands were folded together so hard to hide the trembling it made his fingers ache. He didn’t say anything.
He wanted an answer. Jerret took in a shuddering breath. Why this restaurant? Why tonight?
Matras, he hated Valentine’s Day!
Calix was staring at the smaller Tiger sitting across the table from him. He hated clan Tigers; always so smug and superior. Always waiting for him to do something to prove that he was a dangerous liability, an anomaly that couldn’t control his animal instincts. An abomination that should have been put down at birth.
A liger couldn’t be as good as a tiger; oh no, of course he couldn’t.
If he wasn’t hungry and already been told the wait was at least fifty minutes at the steak restaurant down the street, he’d never have sat down with the male. He didn’t want to go out with anyone, knowing the day often created false expectations of a relationship in people. The last thing he wanted was to be tied down. He preferred casual hook ups; less expectations to fail.
Stupid human holiday.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” the small man said in a nearly inaudible voice. It cracked on the last word and Calix watched as his throat worked frantically. “I’m sorry.”
Calix crossed his arms over his chest. The Tiger had yet to even look at him in the eyes, not since they’d gotten close enough to each other to scent. His eyes tracked Calix’s hands instead. He’d thought it was due to the disdain he’d met with before from his mother’s clan the one time he had tried to enter their territory.
He’d not even bothered with his father’s clan after the first male he’d approached had taken a swing at him, hurling slurs.
Just for being born different.
He had assumed that this male would be the same, but as he studied him, Calix realized he saw something different. Not disgust, not anger, not disdain. His nose wrinkled, and he took a deep breath.
Plus something more.
He stared at the man’s face; the wide cheekbones, flat nose and full lips were very attractive. His coloring was different; a tawny color that was almost a copper. He could see how tense the tiger was; respectable muscles bunched in his arms as his hands must have flexed where they were hidden under the table. In his anger, he’d missed the way the cat stared down at the table or off to one side.
He wasn’t trying to snub him; he was displaying non-dominance signals.
He really was afraid of him.
Calix was surprised. He blinked and his arms fell to his sides. The sudden movement made the male flinch. In all the times he’d come across other cats, none had reacted like this one was. He didn’t like it; for some reason it bothered him more than the scorn of all the others.
“Will you please look at me?” he asked quietly.
It seemed to take forever before the male’s eyes rose and finally met his own. Calix tried to give him his most non-threatening smile.
“I think I may have given you a bit of a scare,” he said. “I don’t know what I can say or do to reassure you that you don’t have anything to fear from me. I won’t harm you.”
The male nodded hesitantly but his act of agreement was clearly false.
“My name is Calix. I just moved here to start my own gym down the street. I didn’t think there was a Tiger clan in this territory. Velaku never mentioned it when I petitioned him to move here.”
The male’s pink tongue came out and swiped at his lips. “There isn’t one.” His voice broke again and he tried to clear his throat. Calix could see his glance shift to his soda again.
“Why don’t you take a drink?”
He shrugged, but moving slowly, the male’s hand slid across the table and picked up his glass. Ice clinked against the sides as he took a small drink. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and Calix stared.
His chin tucked a bit after he finished drinking, covering up his vulnerable neck. Clearly it would take more time before he would trust Calix. The liger looked at the menu, filled with burgers and mixed salads, sandwiches and soups.
“Can you tell me what’s good here? I’m guessing since the hostess called you by name you’ve eaten here plenty of times before.”
“I like the burgers. They’re all pretty good.”
“What did you order?”
“I, uh. . .I ordered the Deluxe.”
Calix’s eyes scanned down the menu and he read the description. “You know, that sounds good. I think I’ll try that. Thanks. . .?”
“Oh,” the male flushed, “sorry. My name’s Jerret.”
“Thanks Jerret,” Calix said. The casual conversation seemed to reassure the Tiger a little, but the tense line of his shoulders didn’t relax much.