When the stars threw down their spears
And waterd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
-The Tyger by William Blake.
With an exaggerated grunt, Ashley tossed the neatly-rolled bundle that had moments ago been her tent into the back of the ranger jeep along with the rest of her supplies. Flashing a quick smile towards the men who were helping to load the camping gear, Ash took a moment to wipe the sweat from her face with her forearm. It was another steamy day in the Indian wilds, and the young photographer was feeling sticky and bedraggled already, her loose tank-top clinging to her lithe frame annoyingly. As much as she was going to miss India, Ashley was now really looking forward to getting back home, where she planned on taking a nice loooong shower preferably one that included a certain tall, dark and drop-dead gorgeous jungle woman.
A jungle woman who was, she noticed, running late.
Ashley didnt want to get all nervous didnt want to worry about the nagging sense of fear that had been growing in her all morning but Leandra had promised to be here early and, so far, she hadnt put in an appearance. The gear was almost all loaded now. Grady was accepting a little help from one of the more burly rangers to lift the final heavy chest containing their more fragile camera equipment, and Ash watched the two men carefully set their burden on the back seat of the second of three jeeps that had arrived at first light. The campsite was empty now, the scattered ashes and scorched earth from their campfire about the only lingering evidence of their presence here. As her companions began to claim their seats for the ride out, Ashley felt their eyes all turn to focus on her. She frowned, casting her eyes around at the jungle, willing Leandra to appear.
Grady sighed. "We cant wait forever, Ash," he stated matter-of-factly.
"Shell be here," Ashley insisted stubbornly. "She promised."
"Then where is she?" Grady hesitated, not wanting to test his partners recent mercurial temper. But after a few moments, the silence grew too heavy. "Look, maybe she changed her mind. Maybe shes-"
"Shes coming." Ashley pinned her work-mate with a determined glare, her lips pulling into a stern line as she set her hands firmly on her hips. "Leandra wouldnt lie to me about wanting to leave here, and even if she did, she wouldnt let me go without at least saying good-bye. Shell be here."
Seeing from her expression that Ashley wasnt going to be open to negotiations on this matter, Grady sighed again and gestured to Tarun. The Indian guide quietly explained to the impatient but curious rangers that they were going to need a few more minutes.
Turning back to the jungle, Ashley fought against the part of her that wanted to panic. She will be here, she insisted silently, even as her emerald eyes deepened with concern. And if she doesnt come, Im not leaving. I dont care about the consequences, Im not letting her get away with chickening out at the last moment
But before Ashleys concerns had a chance to grow any larger, she suddenly caught sight of a tall figure approaching from across the grasslands with a long-legged, familiar stride. Glancing back at the waiting group behind her, she grinned. "See, I told you." Scolding herself for ever doubting her lover, Ashley rushed to greet Leandra.
As she neared the dark woman, Ashley stopped and stared, a helpless smile tugging at her lips as she ran her eyes over Leandras frame. She whistled. "Very nice!"
Leandras clear sapphire eyes rolled, and she smiled shyly. "Thanks." Without the paint and primal markings, Leandras pale skin glistened under a fine layer of sweat in the Indian humidity. Shed pulled her long, dark dreadlocks into a thick pony-tail, revealing her classic, angular features better and highlighting her stunning eyes. After seeing the picture on her passport, taken almost five years ago, Leandra had realized just how much her appearance had changed during her jungle exile.
"You look so " Ashley trailed off. "I mean, its weird to see you without all the stripes and stuff."
"Yeah, well I cant very well walk out of here wearing tiger-fur and carrying claws, can I?" Leandra plucked at her new clothes awkwardly. "I feel kinda naked without them, to tell the truth. And I couldnt stand the shoes, so "
"Thats okay, you dont have to wear them if you dont want too." Ashley couldnt help herself, and reached out to touch the taller womans face. Yesterday, during their prolonged waterfall shower, shed had the opportunity to more fully explore Leandras body without the markings, but the new outfit was still a sharp contrast to what shed grown accustomed to over the past two weeks. Noticing a small rucksack slung over her lovers shoulder, she cocked an eyebrow questioningly. "Whats in there?"
"Just a few momentos. My clothes, my claws and my passport and identification." Leandra smiled crookedly. "I hope they dont ask too many questions at the airport. I look a bit different now than when I came here."
"Im sure well manage. But will you be able to get tiger claws onto the plane? Isnt that illegal?"
Leandras smile turned into a roguish grin. "Youre forgetting, my love, what I used to be. Just because Im not a smuggler anymore doesnt mean Ive forgotten how to do it. Believe me, customs wont find them."
Ashley shook her head. "Im not gonna ask any questions," she laughed. "Just dont get caught. I dont want them shipping you off to jail just when Im about to get you home."
Leandra smiled, then ducked down to plant a soft kiss on Ashleys lips. "Dont worry Ill be fine." Straightening, she turned her attention to the three vehicles, and their waiting occupants. She took a deep breath. "Guess its time to go, huh?"
"Yep." Ashley took the taller womans hand, feeling instantly how Leandra was trembling slightly. "Its okay to be nervous, Leandra, but they wont hurt you. Theyre all very nice people."
Leandra nodded, but her eyes were still turgid. "Will you be sitting next to me?"
"Uh huh, its all arranged." Ashley stroked Leandras hand with her thumb in a soothing manner. It was hard for her to imagine what Leandra must be going through; returning to a world she hadnt been part of for so long. Having to leash all those animal instincts that had kept her alive out here for four years. "Ill be right with you the whole way. Its a long trip, and I know its not gonna be easy for you, but when its all over, you can relax."
"I know." Leandra swallowed nervously, then looked seriously into the emerald gaze of the young blonde. "I I havent had to be a human for a long time," she whispered softly, uncertain how to properly express her fears. "I dont know how Ill react.."
"I understand," Ashley immediately calmed. "Well take it slow, just like I said. Dont worry, Leandra youll do just fine, I know it."
Leandra smiled, seeing absolute confidence in the expressive eyes of the younger woman. She nodded. "Okay then. Lets get this over with."
Hands clasped together, the two women approached the clustered jeeps together. Leandras nostrils twitched as she caught the unfamiliar scents of steel and gas and rubber scents shed never really noticed before her exile, but which now seemed almost overwhelming to her. As she met each set of curious eyes in turn, Leandra realized just how sharp her senses had grown out here; she could almost detect each persons individual scent, could hear every rustle of plastic and cloth. Reaching the first jeep, the dark woman smiled tentatively at the people watching her with interest and, she noted, not a little caution.
Ashley only released her lovers hand as they drew alongside the first mud-tracked vehicle. She nodded to her other companions. "Leandra, Id like you to meet Simon Reynolds, and his assistant, Grace Stirling."
Leandra nodded politely, her eyes still shy. "Nice to meet you both." Her voice was quiet and raspy, but Simon bobbed his head in return and offered a broad, excited smile.
"Weve heard a lot about you from Miss Richards," the zoologist said enthusiastically, holding out his hand. Leandra recoiled slightly, and Simon quickly withdrew, his smile growing uncertain. "Um I-I was wondering if perhaps, on the ride out, you might be willing to answer a few questions? Nothing big, just a few things about the tigers, if that would be okay? I mean, its such a unique situation, to meet someone with such an intimate understanding of the cats. I-I dont want to be a bother, especially since this is probably very stressful for you, but perhaps ?" He produced a somewhat owlish expression of hopeful anticipation that Leandra couldnt help but smile.
"I think that would be okay."
"Excellent!" Simons eyes lit up excitedly, and he squeezed his slender form against the far end of the back seat to make room. "I-if you dont mind ?"
With a quick glance towards the rangers and the occupants of the other two jeeps, Leandra leapt gracefully in beside Simon, crouching on the vinyl seat in a tense, feline posture that seemed more comfortable to her than sitting normally. Ashley hid a wry grin, and climbed in after her.
Leandra started slightly when the jeeps engine roared to life, but she settled quickly as soon as Ashley laid a comforting hand on her knee. As they began the drive out of the Park, Leandra managed to distract herself by concentrating on answering Simons questions about the habits of the tigers shed observed their favorite locations, social interactions, and so on. Still, it took every ounce of willpower she possessed just to sit still inside the lurching, mechanical beast as it made its clumsy way through the jungle along one of the more worn tracks, and Leandra tried hard not to think about the fact that very soon, she would be surrounded by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. Or about the fact that she would have to endure a torturous, extremely long plane-ride that would take her half-way around the world before she could relax. As she talked, Leandra tried hard to remember all the little intricacies of human social interaction that shed all but abandoned during her life out here; all the things that had once been second nature, but which served no purpose in the jungle depths, and had therefore been discarded.
Why do humans have to be so much more complicated than other animals? she asked herself silently. Why do they She paused. Why do we have to place so much importance on so many things that dont matter? Considering all the changes she was going to have to adjust to, Leandra felt herself becoming overwhelmed. She felt exposed and vulnerable without the shadows of the jungle around her without the tawny stripes that had been her protection for so long. What the hell am I thinking? I must be out of my mind! I cant do this! Why am I even trying?
Only when she looked to the side and found those sympathetic emerald eyes gazing back at her did Leandras mind grow calm. Ashleys quiet smile and comforting presence eased the dark womans fears, and gave her the courage to face the challenges that lay ahead.
Smiling in return, Leandra focused her attention back to Simon. Thats why Im doing this, she thought peacefully. For her. For the way she makes me feel. As long as I can know that shell be with me everytime I turn around, everytime I wake up, everytime I make a mistake, or feel like its all too hard as long as I can see that love in her eyes, this is worth whatever hardships it costs.
And as the jungle began to give way to the first signs of rural life, Leandra concentrated on the feel of Ashleys hand as it gently stroked her leg, willing to ignore the rest of the world just to enjoy the solace of her lovers touch.
* * *
"Look Leandra, Im not saying that stewardess wasnt coming on to you, okay? Im just saying that you could have simply asked her politely to remove her hand instead of growling at her like that."
"It worked, didnt it?" Leandra gave a rakish grin, her eyes glinting wickedly. "She took her hand off my thigh so fast youd think I had the plague and she didnt bother me for the rest of the flight."
Ashley sighed and shook her head, trying not to smile as she remembered the look on the overly-friendly girls face when Leandra had warned her away with a primitive snarl. Of course, she got off lightly. Another minute of Are you sure I cant do anything else to make your flight more enjoyable? and she might have found my teeth in her hand cheap little hussy! Glancing out the window of the taxi as it drove along quiet, neatly groomed streets, Ashley felt the tension of the last forty-eight hours melt away as she recognized the familiar surroundings. "Well, were almost home now another ten minutes or so. And I for one will be glad to be able to just kick back and relax."
"Me too." Leandra was looking around her new surrounding with interest, and was pleased to note that the road outside quickly left the suburban sprawl behind, venturing into pleasant woodlands with only a few houses spaced every now and then along the route.
The trip had been every bit as difficult for Leandra as shed anticipated, despite the fact that it was almost miraculously disaster free. No-one had questioned her somewhat dated passport. No-one had searched her luggage and found the concealed tiger-parts. The plane-ride had been quiet and uneventful with the minor exception of the young stewardess with the eager hands. Leandra had even managed a few minutes restless sleep on the long flight, even though the seats felt strange against her body, and the air smelled stale and cloying. Still, international travel is a stressful ordeal under even the most ideal of circumstances, and Leandra was looking forward to being alone again with the one woman she felt truly comfortable around.
Soon enough, they reached their destination. The cab pulled over to the curb outside a sprawling, two-story brick veneer house set among the tranquil forest. As Ashley thanked the driver and handed over a few bills, Leandra exited the vehicle with a sigh of relief. It was going to take a while to get used to things like cars again, she acknowledged, stretching her arms above her head and grunting. The tension and stress of the journey back to civilization made her right shoulder ache, and the pain was making her a little grumpy. Still, her mood changed quickly as soon as she reminded herself it was all over now.
Looking around at her new surroundings, Leandra smiled. All around in every direction, tall redwoods and aspens spread their branches high into the air, sheltering smaller saplings and underbrush beneath their boughs. Although it was a far cry from the humid jungle and sprawling grass plains that had been her home in India, Leandra felt a good deal more comfortable just being in such a natural setting. There was a sense of safety to be found in the gently shifting shadows of the trees, and the dark woman took a moment just to listen to the sounds of unfamiliar birdcalls that filled the air, before she turned her attention to studying the house itself.
The gardens leading up to the house were somewhat wild and overgrown, but Leandra realized quickly that they had been carefully nurtured to appear that way on purpose. The garden suited the forest setting perfectly not trying to bring order to the scene, but rather, complementing it with a harmonious design that probably required very little maintenance. The house continued this embrace of the natural world, sporting many large-paned windows and even a few stained-glass designs of kingfishers and other birds. Leandra smiled as the cab pulled away and Ashley joined her, the younger woman lifting her heavy backpack and fumbling for a set of keys.
"Home, sweet home," the young blonde grinned. "Come on, Ill show you around."
Leandra followed the photographer up a twisting rock pathway that ran up a few steps to the front door of the house. Ashley unlocked the door and knocked it open with her hip, gesturing for Leandra to precede her inside. Leandra accepted the invitation, and looked around with great interest at what was to be her new home.
The first thing that struck her was the sense of openness and space. The many huge windows allowed natural light to flow in from outside, and Leandra appreciated the feeling of freedom it created. Hardwood floors covered by a few Indian-style rugs shone in the sunlight, and the interior walls were dotted with dozens of large, framed photographs, each depicting a spectacular shot of one animal or another. In the center of the room was a sunken sitting area with a large-screen television and an extremely comfortable-looking sectional couch. An archway to the right led into a neatly-arranged dining area and kitchen, and a closed door on the left led to what Leandra assumed was probably a bedroom. A set of stairs ran up the far wall, giving access to the second floor of the house. Numerous indoor plants set tastefully around the room continued the natural theme. The air smelled clean and fresh, and Leandra felt her tensions drift further away.
"Well " Ashley dumped her backpack on the hardwood floor and blew her bangs from her eyes. "What do you think?"
Leandra smiled. "I think I should have looked more seriously at pursuing a career in photography," she said, her tone impressed. "How can you afford a place like this?"
Ash shrugged modestly. "A combination of raw talent, good luck, and generous parents." She laughed a little and began tugging her lover around the sunken living room. "I get paid well for my work, but thats not how it is for most photographers. I just happen to be one of the best in my field." Leading the dark woman over to the far wall, she pointed out a number of plaques and framed awards hung proudly beside pictures of various animals. "See? When you get this much praise, your talent suddenly comes at a much higher price."
Leandra leaned forward and studied the awards, reading the elegant words of glowing approbation from Ashleys peers. "Im impressed."
"Yeah, well " Ashley shuffled her feet unassumingly. "Like I said, Im lucky."
Leandra gestured to the many photographs hanging on the walls. "Did you take all these?"
"Uh huh. Theyre my favorites; the best of the best."
"Theyre magnificent." Leandra wandered around, pausing to study a fantastic underwater shot of a humpback whale and her calf. "Youre more than lucky, Ashley. This is pure talent."
Ash blushed at the praise. "Thank you."
"Still, this house must have cost a fortune especially for someone as young as you."
"My parents helped me buy it," Ashley admitted. "They live nearby, and I guess they were willing to support me a bit if it meant keeping me close to them especially since I travel so much. They did the same with my sister; she lives a few minutes up the road."
Leandra nodded, still looking around. "No pets?"
"Only Melanie." Ashley pointed to a cabinet that was recessed in the right wall of the living room. Wandering over to investigate, Leandras eyes searched among the rocks and tree-branches inside until she made out the shiny, serpentine body within. Looking closer, she caught sight of a pale, slightly dusky-colored snake with a head that looked as though it had been dipped in black ink.
"A black headed python," she identified quickly. "These only live in Australia."
"Yep. I fell in love with them when I was over there a few years ago. It took a while, but I eventually found a dealer who could get me one for the right price."
Leandra watched the sleepy reptile for a moment, before commenting, "I thought youd have more animals. I mean, you spend all your life around them, so "
"Yeah, I do," Ashley agreed. "And Id love to get a dog or something, but the fact is my lifes not exactly suited to having a lot of pets. Melanie doesnt need that much care, so she doesnt mind my not being around much for her. My niece, Casey, absolutely adores her, so she takes care of feeding and cleaning duties when Im overseas."
Ashley held out her hand. "Come on, Ill show you the rest. My bedrooms upstairs."
Leandra grinned at the mischievous twinkle in her lovers emerald eyes, and accepted the offered hand happily. "Lead on."
The photographer led her dark companion through the dining room and kitchen, then pointed to the closed door. "Thats Caseys room," she explained. "She spends a lot of time here, so I gave her some space of her own."
A short hallway led to a study filled wall-to-wall with overflowing bookcases, and beyond that was a spacious bathroom and toilet. Leandra smiled at the thought of taking a shower using water that wasnt icy cold, and decided that was one of the first things she was going to do as soon as shed seen the rest of the house.
Upstairs, Leandra was shown a second, rather empty bedroom, as well as a sun-room that led out to a wrap-around balcony. Finally, Ashley pushed open the final door and pulled the dark woman into what was obviously her own bedroom. The room contained a large, neatly-made bed, a dresser, wardrobe, and all the other usual bedroom furnishings. A small doorway to the side led into an ensuite, and another led outside to the balcony. Leandra smiled, her sharpened senses detecting the scent of her lover in the air.
Ashley spread her arms out to encompass the room. "I hope you like it," she said softly. "If you need some space of your own for a while, youre welcome to use the other bedroom, but " she gave a shy smile. "Theres plenty of space in here."
Leandra hesitated, a little overwhelmed at the changes in her life this past day and night had brought about. Accustomed to living among creatures who placed great importance on territoriality, she had a lot of respect for personal boundaries. "I dont want to crowd you, Ash. I mean, its enough for you to offer me a place to stay in your home, but "
"I dont mind," Ashley quickly reassured. "I mean, its a big bed afterall and itd be such a waste for me to have to sleep alone on it now that youre here to keep me company."
Leandra grinned, seeing only sincerity in the younger womans face. "Okay then," she agreed. "If you dont mind."
"I practically insist." The short blonde wrapped her arms around Leandras waist and pulled her close. "I didnt drag you half-way around the world just to have to sleep in another room. I want you as close to me as I can get you."
Leandra bent down and kissed the photographer. This kind of affection was still new for her, but she was quickly accepting the way her body craved any contact with Ashley she could get. "Can I talk you into sharing a shower with me?" she purred. "I could use a change of clothes."
"Mmm, I dunno." Ashley grinned, her eyes narrowing to seductive slits. "Are you gonna make it worth my while?"
Leandra almost growled. "I think we could come to an arrangement."
"Okay." Ashley stepped back, releasing her hold on the dark woman. "Just give me a minute first though. I should call my sister and tell her Im back. Why dont you look around a little and make yourself comfortable; you know, rummage through the wardrobe, open a few drawers stuff like that. Maybe you can find something of mine to wear." She ran her eyes appreciatively over Leandras long, muscular form. "I think were going to have to take you shopping though cant have you running around naked for too long."
Leandra cocked an eyebrow saucily. "You can have me anyway you want me," she husked throatily. "Anytime."
Heat flushed immediately through Ashleys loins, a fire sparked at the hooded desire in Leandras smoky eyes. She swallowed hard. "That sounds like the kind of offer I can live with." No-one else had ever been able to arouse this kind of sexual hunger in her the way Leandra could, and Ashley was still adjusting to having a lover with such a confident and seductive attitude. Shuddering, the young blonde shook herself free of the impulse to just jump on Leandra, wrestle her to the bed, and have her wicked way with her right now; there were things that needed to be done first. From the slightly amused but hungry expression Leandra wore, it was clear the dark woman recognized her desire and would have been only too happy to oblige it. She smiled. "Later."
Leandra watched her lover exit the room, letting herself enjoy for a moment the extra little hip-swagger Ashley threw in for her benefit, before she took a deep breath and looked around. Left alone, the dark woman decided to do exactly as Ash had suggested, and opened the wardrobe. Inside, the young blonde had organized her clothes into neat sections, and Leandra began to search for something that might fit her larger frame. She found a sleep shirt and a pair of sweat-pants that would have positively swamped her smaller lover, and threw them on the bed. As she closed the wardrobe door, Leandra caught sight of her reflection in the mirror on the dresser. She paused, studying the face looking back at her curiously.
It had four years since Leandra had last seen her reflection so clearly; the rippling surface of water ponds in the jungle couldn't match the clarity of the smooth glass mirror. Those four years had taken their toll, she considered, reaching up a hand and running her fingertips over her face. Her skin was pale from being covered by mud and paint, and there were a few more lines creasing the corners of her eyes and mouth. Her hair, once her proudest feature besides her electric-blue eyes, now framed her face in a mass of tangled snarls. Although she'd always kept herself in shape, life as a jungle predator had equipped Leandra with a body built for endurance, speed, and sheer power. Whipcord muscles rippled along her arms, thighs and stomach. Grinning a little, Leandra stood straighter in front of the mirror and flexed the new muscles.
"Not too bad," she whispered softly, eyeing herself critically. "Not too bad at all."
Leandra had lost any sense of self-image during her exile it hadn't mattered how she looked, since no-one who ever saw her lived long enough to offer any compliments but it was nice to know that she was still attractive. It mattered more to her now that she had Ashley in her life.
Turning away from the mirror, Leandra padded around the room, her footsteps as silent as theyd ever been. She studied the few ornaments that rested on the bedside table and dresser drawer, seeing photographs of a few people she guessed were Ashleys family members. Stepping round the bed, Leandra ran her hands along the bed quilt, just luxuriating in the soft, feathery sensation after having slept on the ground for so long. Wandering around the room, she took a tour outside onto the balcony and looked around, smiling at the view of tranquil forests and placid gardens.
Should be fun to explore, she thought, looking forward to learning more about her new environment. Although Ashleys home was very nice, and she had no doubts that she would be comfortable here, Leandra knew it would take a long time before she could fully break free of the desire to return to the protective embrace of the forest shadows. Four years alone in the jungle cant help but leave a mark, she idly observed. Itll be in my blood forever now. I just hope Ashley can understand that.
Turning back into the bedroom, Leandra sat on the bed a moment, thinking. After a moment or two, her eyes wandered to the bedside drawer, and she gave in to the temptation to snoop a little. Pulling open the top drawer and peeking inside, Leandra studied the contents curiously. A wrinkled, obviously much-loved romance novel a small box of mints an appointment diary and finally
Leandras eyes widened slightly, and her lips formed a wicked grin. "Well, well, well, what have we here?" She reached in and pulled out the smooth, cylindrical plastic device that lay suspiciously at the very back of the drawer. "I guess Little Miss Innocents not so pure afterall." Leandras sensitive ears picked up the sound of footsteps approaching, and she glanced up as Ashley entered the room, one dark brow raised devilishly as she held up her find.
"Well, I hope you dont mind but my sister wants to come over for a visit. She hasnt seen me in a few months, so I said she could drop b- Eeek!!" Ashleys eyes grew wide as saucers and her face colored with an instant blush as she saw what Leandra was holding.
The dark woman grinned and waved the vibrator at her lover. "You should have told me I was going to have some competition."
"Where did you " Ashley sprang forward, grabbing for the plastic device. "Give me that!"
"Why?" Leandra used her longer arms to good advantage, keeping her find out of Ashleys reach. "Are you gonna give me a private demonstration? I think Id like that."
"Leandra!" Ashley wrestled with her dark lover, unable to pin the stronger woman down. "Give it!"
"Oh, come on " Leandra pouted and retreated back towards the ensuite. Ashley stalked her slowly, eyes narrowed to menacing slits. "Didnt your mother ever teach you to share your toys?"
"Leandra " Ashley stepped closer.
"I guess a girl needs something to keep her happy on those lonely nights, right?"
"Hey, Ive gone without a boyfriend for a long time now," Ashley defended. "I have normal appetites that need to be satisfied, just like everyone else."
Leandra purred. "I know." She backed up a few steps, feeling the cooler air of the tiled bathroom behind her. "You wanna take that shower now?" Long, tapered fingers stroked the length of the plastic shaft seductively.
Ashley licked suddenly dry lips, her face glowing bright red at the carnal look in Leandras eyes. "Give it back first."
"Why?" Leandra grinned, sensing her lovers rising desire. "I was thinking maybe we could play a little."
Emerald eyes widened, and a shiver of arousal ran the length of Ashleys spine. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"Wellll " Leandra considered, studying the vibrator thoughtfully. "Its just a suggestion, but I wouldnt mind letting you watch me "
Ashleys breathing suddenly accelerated dangerously, her heart beating harder at the images her creative imagination hurried to put forth. "I-I-I dont know "
"Itll be fun," Leandra promised in a husky whisper. "We can make it an active audience participation kind of thing if youd like." The dark woman began unbuttoning her shirt with her left hand.
Ashleys nostrils flared as pale skin was revealed, and she felt her inhibitions swiftly become overwhelmed by the strength of her lust. "Umm "
"You know, I havent had a hot shower in four years." Leandra slipped the khaki shirt from her shoulders, exposing her naked chest to the younger blonde. "Itd be a terrible shame if I had to do this all by myself " Ashleys eyes darkened to a smoky jade hue, and Leandra grinned as she turned around and entered the small bathroom.
Ashley considered for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, we dont want that." Stripping off her own clothes frantically, the blonde photographer hastened after her dark lover quickly, not wanting the show to start without her.
* * *
Sometime later, a flushed, tousled, but extremely satisfied Ashley emerged from upstairs, still toweling her hair dry. After the shower, which had involved a very detailed and thoroughly enjoyable demonstration of her plastic friend, Ashley had left her dark lover to get dressed while she went in search of something to eat. Wandering into the kitchen, the young photographer began to rummage through poorly-stocked cupboards, hoping to find a packet of biscuits or something that hadn't expired during her overseas trip.
"Hey sis, whats up?"
The voice startled Ashley completely, and she whirled around quickly, almost slamming the cupboard door on her fingers. Cursing, she glared at the intruder acidly.
"Jesus Christ, Eve! Cant you knock on the door or something next time?!"
Evelyn Richards just grinned unrepentantly and moved in to hug her sister. "Its not often I get to take you by surprise, Ash. And for your information, I did knock. You didn't answer, so I figured you were in the shower or something and let myself in." She ran her eyes up and down her younger siblings slender frame, looking for any signs of injury or illness. It wasnt uncommon for Ash to return from her trips covered in insect bites, nasty scratches, and sometimes worse. Eve saw a few marks on Ashley's neck and chest, and a suspicious-looking band-aid on her ankle, but that was it. She nodded, reassured. "You look pretty good. How was India? Did you bring anything back with you? You know Caseys gonna kill you if you didn't get her that sarong she was asking about."
"Umm " Ashley glanced at the stairs. "Well...I didn't get to go shopping as much as I wanted too...things got a little hectic towards the end. But umm...I did get to bring one really interesting surprise back with me."
At that point Leandra's husky voice called from upstairs. "Hey Ashley? If you cant find anything in the kitchen, Ive got something up here you could nibble on."
Eve looked from the stairway to her brightly-flushed sister, then back again. "Whos that?"
Ashley shrugged sheepishly. "Thats my surprise."
Eve raised an eyebrow, but before she could ask for more elaboration, Leandra appeared at the bottom of the stairway. The clothes shed borrowed from Ashley fit her a little snugly, and her hair and body were still dripping with water, making them cling to every impressive curve of her six-foot-something frame. Ashley shook her head when she saw her lover, rolling her eyes a little at the water pooling around her feet. I guess shes forgotten about towels and stuff, too.
Leandra stopped uncertainly when she saw Evelyn. "Oh I-I didnt hear the door " She gave Ashley an apologetic look and stepped closer to her. Despite the fact that the stranger was older than Ashley, and her body carried a few extra pounds, the resemblance between the two women was strong enough that Leandra quickly guessed this was her lovers sister.
"Eve, Id like you to meet Leandra," Ashley quickly made introductions. "Leandra, this it my sister, Evelyn."
Leandra smiled shyly. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise." Eve studied the tall, dripping woman curiously, conscious of the intense chemistry going on between her and her sister.
"Um Leandras going to be staying with me," Ashley explained, reaching out a hand to pull her lover closer.
Leandra squeezed Ashleys hand lightly. Aware of the interested jade eyes studying her, the dark woman glanced hopefully towards the door, seeking an escape route. "Um I was thinking maybe Id go take a look around outside, if thats okay. Im sure you two have a lot of catching up to do."
"Sure." Ashley nodded, understanding that Leandra was giving her some space and also that she needed some herself. "Just dont go climbing too many trees or rolling around in any mud patches. I just got you clean, and Id like to keep you that way for a while."
"I know." Leandra glanced at Eve, then leaned down to give Ashley a quick kiss, taking the opportunity to whisper "I love you," into the younger womans ear. Just saying the words out loud gave her a warm, sweet feeling all over, and she resolved to say them more often. Turning, Leandra offered a nod to the watching Eve. "Ashleys told me a lot about you. Its nice to finally meet you in person."
"Well, I look forward to getting to know you better, Leandra."
The dark woman smiled, then headed for the door on silent footsteps.
"Leandra?" Ashley called just as she reached for the handle.
"If you see anyone out there, try not to growl at them." Ash grinned. "Remember, we have to live with these people, okay?"
Sapphire eyes glinted playfully. "Ill be good," Leandra promised dutifully, giving her lover a quick wink before she disappeared thankfully outside.
Ashley watched the door close, then turned back to face her sister. Eve raised an eyebrow at her, and she shuffled somewhat awkwardly. "Um that was Leandra."
"So I see." Evelyn was obviously trying to hide a shit-eating grin.
Ash sighed, not really prepared for this conversation yet. "You know, I could really use some coffee. You want a cup? I think I had some in here " She began to rummage through the cupboards again.
"Sounds good." Eve claimed a spot on one of the barstools and rested her arms on the breakfast counter, then studied her embarrassed sister with an amused smile. It was rare for Ashley to get flustered, and she was rather enjoying it. "Let me see if I understand this." She cleared her throat. "You went to India on a shoot, and you brought back a woman? Whats the matter, couldnt find anything good in the souvenir shops?"
"Its a long story."
"Oh, Ill bet. And I cant wait to hear it."
Ashley set the kettle on to boil, and occupied herself with preparing two cups. She glanced at Evelyn a few times, trying to gauge her reaction. Thankfully, she found no trace of persecution or distaste being aimed towards her by her sibling, and she took a deep breath before exhaling slowly. "I dont really know where to start "
Eve nodded, deciding to take pity on her younger sibling. "You and her are involved, right?"
"I see." Eve was silent for a moment, studying her sister with a carefully neutral expression. "You never told me you were interested in women."
"Yeah, well " Ashley shrugged awkwardly. "You know me; Im not really comfortable talking about that sort of stuff. And I guess you could say Leandras kind of a first for me in more ways than one."
"Aahh." Evelyn grinned. "Well, she seems nice. A little quiet, maybe, but "
"When you get to know her a bit better, youll understand why that is."
Eve cocked her head to the side. "What was that bit there about her growling at the neighbors?"
"Believe me, it was a valid warning." The kettle finished boiling, and Ashley added steaming water to the cups along with coffee and sugar. She handed one cup to her sister, and left the other on the bench. "Wait here a minute, Ill get something that might help explain better."
The young photographer raced upstairs, and returned a moment later carrying a small paper folder. Reaching in, she drew out a couple of polaroids and handed them to her sister.
Eve took the pictures and studied them curiously. "Whats this?"
"Thats Leandra before I got her back here," Ash explained quietly.
Eves eyes narrowed in confusion. Each photograph showed the dark woman dressed in her striped tiger-fur outfit, her body painted up like a halloween costume. The jungle filled in the background, vines and palms obscuring the scene. Even in the still picture, Leandra managed to convey at least a sense of the savage, primal energy that so characterized her in the jungle. "Why is she all dressed up like that?"
"Its how she looked." Ashley paused, then explained simply, "Shes been living alone in the jungle for the last four years. I was pretty much the first person she talked too in that whole time expect for the tigers."
Eves eyes widened, and she stared at her sister. "Youre kidding?"
"Nope." Ashley reached for her coffee and took a sip. "Its hard to believe, but shes been living as a tiger all that time. She can hunt like they do, move like they do she can even talk like they do! Shes absolutely amazing to watch in action."
"But Why? I mean, what was she doing out there?"
"She had her reasons." Ash hesitated, not comfortable sharing the secrets of Leandras life, even with her own sister. "I guess life hit her badly, and she needed some time to get herself together again."
Evelyn studied the pictures again, now understanding them more clearly. She shook her head, amazed. "How the hell did you hook up with her?"
"When we went out there, we happened to set up camp in her hunting ground." Ashley climbed onto the barstool next to her sister. "She was curious about us, and came snooping round one night scared the heck out of me, Ill tell you. Then, one morning I was out by the river, and I got in some trouble there. I surprised a poacher, and Leandra came along and scared him off. She disappeared before I could say much to her, but that night, I saw her campfire. So you know me, I couldnt let things be well enough alone. The next morning I went looking for her, wanting to say thank you, and I guess we just kinda clicked."
Eve shook her head in awe. She was accustomed to hearing about Ashleys adventures, but this story was even more wild than usual. "Thats unbelievable."
"I know." Ash grinned. "She was really lonely out there, so we started spending time together. She showed me everything she knew, shared all her secrets with me. We really fit together well, and the more I got to know her, the more I liked her. I couldnt really help it; I fell for her hard." She chuckled a little sheepishly. "Imagine my surprise when I found out she felt the same way!"
Eve grinned. She knew her sister wasnt the most outgoing person when it came to romance. "Well " She studied the pictures closely. "Shes easy on the eyes, Ill give you that. And I guess she cant be any worse than that last guy you dated. What was his name? Steve?"
"Urgh! Dont remind me!" Ashley made a face and laughed. "Leandras nothing like anyone Ive ever been involved with."
Eve smiled warmly, reading Ashleys excitement easily. It was obvious Leandra was about her favorite topic at the moment, and she was happy just to see her sister so filled with joy. "I guess this is pretty serious then, huh?" she asked quietly.
Ash nodded. "She came half-way around the world just to be with me," she whispered, "and if she hadnt, I would have stayed in the jungle just to be with her. She left her whole world behind for me and I know that wasnt easy for her. So yeah its about as serious as it gets."
"Well Im happy for you, sis." Eve leaned over and gave the younger woman a hug. "She must love you a lot to give up everything just to stay by your side."
"Thanks." Ash felt an unrealized tension ease from her shoulder, glad she had support from her sister. "That means a lot to me."
Eve pulled away from the embrace, her eyes dropping to Ashleys neck and chest. She grinned mischievously. "And all of a sudden, these marks are looking less and less like insect bites, and more like love-bites."
Ash blushed and tried futilely to pull her shirt over the light bruises. "Yeah, well Leandra gets pretty intense sometimes."
Eve waggled her eyebrows, thoroughly enjoying her sisters unusual display of discomfort. "Ill bet." Usually, Ashley was bold and assertive, and Eve had always admired and envied her forthright attitude. It was a nice change to see the young blonde blushing like a schoolgirl. "Whatre you planning on telling mum and dad? I take it they dont know youre back?"
"No, I was going to wait a while before I called them." Ashley rubbed her eyes and took another sip of coffee. "I need some time to get rested after the flight and also to let Leandra get settled in. Coming back to civilization must be some serious culture-shock for her."
"Uh huh." Eve considered this latest twist to her sisters already convoluted history. Ashley had always gone her own way, and to hell with anyone who tried to talk her out of it. Headstrong and independent, she had caused her parents a lot of headaches during her life. Eve wasnt sure how they were going to take the news that their daughter had dragged home a wild-woman from the Indian jungles, or that she was now romantically involved with said wild-woman. Still, she was accustomed to acting as an intermediary between the two groups, and quickly stepped in the smooth the way as much as possible. "Would it help if I talked to them first? Maybe explain things a little so they have some time to get used to the idea?"
Ashley shrugged. "You can if you like," she said indifferently, her expression stern. "But Leandras here to stay, no matter how they feel about it. Its not like I can send her back there. I love her, and thats just something theyre gonna have accept."
"Still, this is pretty big news, Ash," Evelyn pointed out patiently. "I mean mom and dad dont freak out easily, but its going to be a shock to hear youve switched teams like this."
Ashley considered that and had to agree her sister was right. She sighed. "Ill call them tomorrow night," she allowed. "If you want to go over there and explain the situation before that, I dont mind."
Evelyn smiled, knowing that this was as close as Ashley would get to actually asking for some help. "No problem." Swallowing the last of the coffee, Eve dropped the cup off in the sink and turned to regard her sibling. "Caseys gonna go nuts."
Ash snorted. "Trust me Eve, I think shell get along just fine with Leandra." Casey had never really gotten along well with any of her past romances. The somewhat rebellious seventeen year old treated her aunt more like an older sister; they were close to the same age, were both determined to do what they wanted in life regardless of the opinions of other, and they spent a lot of time together. Casey sometimes got a bit defensive when Ashley had a boyfriend. Still, for some reason the young photographer didnt foresee any troubles regarding Leandra it was just a feeling she had, but somehow she knew the two would get along.
"Shell be home from school in about another hour," Eve said. "I should warn you, shes been waiting none-to-patiently for you to get back for the past two weeks. Will it be okay if she comes around tonight?"
"Sure, no problem. You want me to feed her?"
Eve glanced at the bare cupboards wryly. "I think Id better do that. Looks like you need to do some shopping."
"Yeah. Ill take a trip into town tomorrow and restock. Leandra needs some new clothes, and I should stop in at work and process some film." She grinned as she put the polaroids back in their folder. "Just wait till you see some of the other shots I got. You wont believe them, theyre so amazing!"
"I cant wait." Eve glanced at the oven clock. "I better head off," she said regretfully. "I should have started cooking dinner an hour ago. But Ill stop by as soon as I get some spare time, okay? Im looking forward to getting to know your new friend a bit better." She gave her sister a farewell hug. "Youre not planning anymore trips for a while, right?"
"I hope not." Ash returned the hug with equal strength. "Its good to be home again. I missed having someone to talk too about everything."
Eve smiled warmly and tousled her sisters hair affectionately. "Well sit down and have a proper talk soon, I promise. I want to hear everything about your latest adventure all the details." Her jade eyes sparkled playfully. "Even the juicy ones."
Ash blushed and gave her sister a gentle shove. "Im not the type to kiss and tell," she said primly.
"Yeah, well Ive been a staid old married mother for nearly eighteen years young lady, so the least you can do is give me a few interesting tid-bits." Eve grinned. "Ill see you later Ash."
"Yeah, see ya."
Ashley watched her sister through the window as she got in her car and drove off, glad to have received such understanding from her older sibling. Although she liked to tell herself she didnt care what her family thought of Leandra, Ash realized that deep down, she still wanted their approval. She had been so successful in the choices shed made in her life, and her parents were justly proud of her efforts. Now, she wanted them to love and accept Leandra the same way she did and a part of her was fearful that they wouldnt be able or willing to embrace this latest development in her life.
Sighing, Ashley headed upstairs to retrieve her shoes so she could go searching for her lover in the forests. On the way, she smiled at the trail of water Leandra had left after her shower, shaking her head with fond indulgence.
"Weve got a lot of re-education to go through, Jungle Jane." Ash knew that getting Leandra back to civilization wasnt going to instantly tame the wild instincts that had developed in her these last four years. The dark woman was going to need a lot of patience and understanding in the weeks ahead and Ashley had no illusions about this being some kind of fairytale romance where everything was always easy. It was going to take hard work and endless compassion in order for their budding relationship to survive.
Still, Ashley had never been one to back down from a challenge. She had faith in the strength of her love for Leandra and she was almost looking forward to the challenges that they were going to face in the coming days
* * *
Later that night, Leandra sat on the floor of the sunken living room, her back propped against the lounge behind her, legs extended fully across the comfortable Indian rug before her. Ashley sat behind the dark woman, one leg thrown over each of her shoulders, playing idly with a few cords of tangled ebony hair. A couple of empty dinner plates sat on the coffee table, only one of which had any cutlery on it, since Leandra still preferred eating with her hands. The television was on, and images of colorful cartoon characters played across the screen to the quiet sounds of accompanying music. Leandra watched as the Road Runner evaded yet another wildly improbable scheme cooked up by Wiley Coyote, a slight, innocent smile curling the corners of her mouth. Most of her focus, however, was concentrated on the warmth of her lovers legs wrapped around her neck, and the subtle pleasure of Ashleys fingers twisting through her dreadlocks. Leandra released a sigh as she relaxed more fully into her new home.
"Its nice to know some things dont change," she remarked huskily. "Television seems just as inane as I remember it."
Ashley smiled. "I think theyre kinda cute," she said, watching as the ever-persistent Coyote plummeted good-naturedly off a cliff. "Even though you know hell never catch the Road Runner, it still makes it funny when he fails. And he never gives up thats a good message."
Leandra grunted, and began stroking the photographers bare feet softly. "Im exhausted."
"Me too." Just thinking of how tired she was caused Ashley to yawn. "Jet-lag plus stress equals one massive energy drain. Well get some sleep soon."
"Mmm." Leandra was silent for a few moments, thinking. "What are we doing tomorrow?"
"I thought wed go into town and do some shopping. You cant be comfortable wearing clothes that are five sizes too small for you."
Leandra purred as she glanced behind her with narrowed eyes. "You could always take them off me," she suggested.
Ashley blushed. "I could but I think thatd be a bit much for when Casey stops by."
Leandras expression changed. "Oh, right. Id forgotten about that."
Ashley could tell Leandra was still feeling very out of her element in this world of family, friends, and human community. She patted the dark womans shoulder comfortingly. "You dont need to worry, Leandra. Casey doesnt bite."
"I know, its just " Leandra struggled, unable to express how difficult it was for her to be around other people. "I havent had to socialize with anyone in so long its hard to remember how to act. In the jungle, things were so much simpler. The rules were clearer. Here, things are so much more complex."
"Youll get the hang of it again soon," Ashley said reassuringly. "Theres no reason to rush anything. Well take it as slow as you want." She paused, before adding, "Itll be Saturday tomorrow. We can go to one of the quieter places to look for clothes if you like. Itll be fine, youll see."
Thoughts of shopping for clothes reminded Leandra of another thing. "What about money?"
"I dont mind paying our expenses-"
"Ashley, I cant just expect you to support me forever," Leandra insisted. "Thats not fair on either of us."
Ashley sighed, knowing that if their positions had been reversed, shed have felt the same way. Leandra had lived a long time in a world where the only person she could rely on was herself; it wasnt reasonable to expect her to sacrifice her independence. "Okay, so you can make it up to me once youve settled in. You need some time, Leandra. This is a big move for you."
"I know. But Ive been thinking about it, and I think there might be at least a temporary solution."
Leandra shifted around so she could face her partner directly. "Before I went to India, I was pretty well off. I had an expensive apartment in New York, and a lot of assets."
"But youve been gone for four years," Ash pointed out. "How can you be sure that stuff is still in your name. You could have been declared legally dead, youve been missing for so long."
"Maybe. But I had money stashed in several overseas accounts that no-one could have touched. And there were a few storage houses holding my stuff they would have been paid automatically. It might take a while, but I know all the details are in my head somewhere. If I have some time, I could remember them. The money would be more than enough to pay my way, at least till I figure out a way to earn my keep."
Ashley considered this idea, and admitted it sounded reasonable. She nodded. "Okay then if that would make you feel better."
"It would." Leandra turned back around and pulled Ashleys legs tighter against her chest. She sighed. "You know, Id forgotten how much importance people place on money," she whispered after a period of silence. "Its kind of ironic, in a way I spent so much of my life trying to accumulate as much wealth and power as I could, just like most people do, thinking it gave me greater control over my life. But four years in the jungle has a way of changing your priorities of showing you whats really important. The control I thought I had was just an illusion, and all the money in the world couldnt have saved me if Shar-Tushar had decided to take my life." She smiled reflectively. "When you strip it all away all the money, the home, the secure little world where youre in charge of everything you see and touch and desire when its all gone, you start to understand just how little control you really do have. I hadnt really thought about it till now but its kind of liberating to live as an animal. So much simpler. Hunt, eat, sleep." She cast a saucy glance behind her to Ashleys attentive gaze. "Mate."
Ashley smiled slightly. "Youre going to miss that world, arent you?"
Leandra shrugged. "Maybe." Her lips twitched into a firm line. "Have you ever heard about how some people who have been in prison a long time start to fear their freedom?"
"I can understand that," Leandra said quietly. "The jungle was my prison my punishment. I hated it so much sometimes but in a way, I loved it just as intensely. It was my world. I understood it and even though sometimes it hurt me, I learned a lot about myself from experiencing it the way I did." Ice-blue eyes regarded Ashley seriously. "But at the end of the day, Im glad you came along before it became too late for me to leave my prison."
Ashley felt the full force of Leandras love and affection hit her suddenly as she looked into those burning sapphire gems, but before she could think of any words to say in response, there was a quick knock from the door. Both women glanced up, then turned to regard each other.
"Thatll be Casey," Ash said.
"Mmm." Leandra disentangled herself from the younger woman and stood up. She helped Ashley to her feet. "I think Ill go take a look around outside maybe climb that great big oak tree out there."
"You dont have to go, Leandra. I mean " The knocking repeated, and Ashley went to answer it. "Caseys gonna want to meet you sooner or later, so you might as well-" She turned back around, but found the living room empty. Leandra had vanished as swift and silent as a dark zephyr. " stay " Ashley sighed and turned back to the front door. "Damn, that woman moves fast," she muttered. "Im gonna have to get a bell or something to tie around her neck."
* * *
Sitting in the branches of the ancient, knarled oak tree that dominated the backyard of Ashleys home, Leandra closed her eyes and listened peacefully to the sounds of the night animals all around. Things were a good deal quieter in this sedate forest than they were in steamy depths of the Indian jungle, but Leandra could detect the subtle calls and cries that others would ignore. Her hearing was finely tuned to pick up the most minute details, and to her the night air told a dramatic story of hunter and prey.
My first night back in civilization, she thought quietly to herself. I can already tell Im going to be spending a lot of time in this tree. The oak was huge and ancient, its branches sweeping close to the ground and providing easy holds for any climbers. Leandra had positioned herself high up among the topmost branches of the great tree, hidden from below by the dense foliage. She felt safe here comfortable. Although she wasnt exactly afraid of meeting the rest of Ashleys family, Leandra could accept that she was somewhat nervous. Shed lost her own family a long time ago all the interactions and familial relations were strange to her. Leandra was certain shed never quite be able to fit in with this new world, no matter how she tried.
I fit in with the tigers better than I do with my own species, she considered sadly.
A sudden noise below caused Leandra to tense, and she shifted on her perch to listen as footsteps made their way closer to the base of the oak. Sniffing the air, the dark woman detected an unfamiliar scent. Not Ashley, she concluded. As the sound of someone climbing up towards her grew louder, Leandra sat quietly in the shadows and waited, her senses picking up the smells of leather, perfume and youth.
Moments later, a hand reached up and wrapped around the thick branch on which Leandra was sitting. A second joined it, and soon a young girl pulled herself up onto the perch with a slight grunt. Taking a second to look around, she spied Leandra against the bole of the tree and smiled briefly.
The girl settled herself somewhat awkwardly on the branch, then studied Leandra curiously. "Im Casey Ashleys niece."
Leandra smiled a quiet smile. "Its nice to meet you Casey."
Leandra was a little amused at the young girls posture and attitude. So many years spent among the unpredictable and often savage jungle cats had given her a lot of experience reading expression and body language, and right now she had the distinct impression that Casey was sizing her up against a very critical scale. Well, she thought. Cant avoid this forever, I suppose.
From what Leandra could see in the shifting light of the half-moon, Casey looked to be right at the rebellious part of her adolescence. She was about Ashleys size maybe an inch or two taller, and slender as a reed but she held herself with an almost aggressive confidence that Leandra recognized from her lover. The left side of her face was framed by light blonde hair, while the right was shadowed by bright green locks. Several metal loops sparkled along the rim of each ear, and a single elegant ring hooked through her left nostril. Dark eye-shadow made her emerald eyes seem almost disconcertingly bright, and she wore torn denim jeans and a black T-shirt sporting a picture of what Leandra guessed was some rock-band or other. Just looking at Casey, Leandra had a sudden flash image of what Ashley might have looked like at seventeen.
Casey performed her own assessment, running shrewd eyes up and down Leandras curled-up form. When she was finished, she regarded the dark-haired woman with a flicker of reluctant interest. "Ash said you were going to be living with her."
Leandra nodded. "Thats right."
"So youre her girlfriend now?"
"I suppose I am." Leandra smiled. Ive never been anyones girlfriend before. "Is that a problem?"
Casey shrugged. "Doesnt matter to me. Ash never told me she liked chicks or nothing, but Im not surprised." She paused with a slight smile. "I doubt theres anything she could do thatd surprise me anymore."
"Do you love her?"
Leandra was momentarily taken aback by the bluntness of the question, but she appreciated the sharp challenge in the teenagers eyes. She nodded. "I love her more than I can put into words," she said, not breaking eye-contact. "Id rather die than live without her in my life."
Casey held Leandras gaze a long moment, reading her sincerity. Then she nodded, apparently satisfied. "Most of the guys she dated before avoided that question. They hummed and harred and talked about devotion and companionship but they couldnt actually say the words."
"You dont need to worry about that, Casey. I could say them a thousand times a day and Id mean them every bit as much as I do right now."
"Good." Casey was silent for a long while, then she gestured to Leandras hair. "Pretty cool dreads. How long did it take to grow them?"
"A few years although it wasnt exactly by choice. They just sort of grew that way." Leandra fingered one of the thin cords hanging over her shoulder absently. "I like the nose-ring. Kinda goes with the bright green hair."
"Thanks." Casey smiled, and her resemblance to Ashley was suddenly a lot stronger. "My mom about had a fit when I got it done. I want to get my tongue pierced too, but she said not till Im eighteen." There was a pause. "Ash said you used to live in the jungle with the tigers. Is that true?"
Leandra inclined her head slightly. "For four years."
"Wh-what was it like?"
"Lonely. Painful." Leandra shrugged. "But I learned a lot from them."
"Really? Like what?"
Casey was now looking at Leandra with definite curiosity and interest. The dark woman felt herself warming to her lovers niece, and she relaxed her posture slightly. "Like how to move quietly, for one thing. How to track by scent. I could smell you coming when you were still on the ground."
"Yeah?" Caseys eyes widened a little.
"Yeah." Leandra hesitated. "I could teach you, if you wanna learn."
The young blonde considered, then shrugged. "That sounds pretty cool. When?"
"Anytime you like."
"Okay. Im going shopping with Ashley in the morning, but if you like we could go walking after that and Ill show you some stuff."
"Cool." Casey grinned fully, her eyes lighting up her entire face. "You know " She shifted closer to Leandra. "Ash has never really had great taste in guys. Most of her boyfriends were jerks they didnt like it when she tried to stand up for herself, or when she had to travel all the time." She paused, studying the dark woman in the moonlight. "Its nice to know she has better taste in chicks."
Leandra raised a dark brow in amusement, her lips quirking into a half-grin. "Thank you."
"Welcome." Casey looked around at the dark forest all around. "So were you hiding out here because of me?"
This time Leandra couldnt help herself, and she laughed quietly at the teenagers brashness. "Sort of," she admitted. "You havent seen your aunt in a long time, and I know how close the two of you are just from listening to her talk about you. I didnt want to get in the way of you catching up."
"Heh." Casey smirked, and added another mental point in Leandras favor. "Most of Ashs boyfriends hated having me around all the time." She gave the dark woman a friendly look. "You dont have to wait around out here if you dont want to."
"Its okay. I like the night-time and its interesting just listening to the different animals."
"Yeah, well, you can do that some other night," Casey repositioned herself on the bough, preparing to climb her way down the massive tree. She fixed Leandra with a stern gaze. "Come on. You and Ash can tell me all about how you two got together."
Leandra considered, then nodded. "Fine." Rising from her seat, the former jungle woman glanced at the ground below for a second, then sprang into the air. With the agility of a trapeze artist, she grabbed for a lower branch, then another, moving down the trunk of the oak with fluid speed till she landed soundlessly on the ground. Casey watched wide-eyed, then quickly scampered down after her. When she reached the base of the tree, the teenager stared at Leandra in awe.
"That was like Wow! Youre like a circus person! Howd you do that?"
Leandra shrugged modestly. "Four years in the jungle you learn a lot of things."
Casey stared a moment longer, then grabbed the dark woman by the hand and started dragging her back towards the house. "You and me are gonna get along just fine, Tiger Tarzan," she said confidently.
Leandra grinned, and followed her lovers niece obediently back inside.
* * *
After the stress of the last two days having left behind her jungle home, traveled half-way around the world, and then endured a rather late night with Ashley and Casey it was small wonder that the midday sun found Leandra still deep in the arms of a restorative sleep. The dark woman lay wrapped in the softness of her lovers embrace, having been tugged up the stairs close to midnight by Ashley, the two women so drawn with fatigue that they hadnt even bothered getting undressed, but simply fell into bed and pulled the covers over their weary bodies before drifting off almost immediately.
Ashley was the first to wake, and she smiled even before her eyes opened at the feel of the warm, powerful body pressed against her. One arm was curled possessively around Leandras waist, and she had thrown a leg over the dark womans hip at some point during the night. Twisting around slightly, careful not to wake her bed-mate, Ashley glanced at the alarm clock that rested on the bedside table and groaned.
Weve slept half the day away. Studying Leandras face at close range, Ashley noticed the beginnings of dark circles under the older womans eyes. I guess she needed the rest. We both did.
Still, Ashley knew she could only let her partner sleep a little longer; there was a lot to do today. Not only would she need to go clothes shopping, but Ashley knew she needed to call in at the magazine so she could begin processing film. Her boss would probably want to rave at her a little, but she wasnt too worried about that. Joseph Harding was a shrewd man, and he knew talent well enough to recognize how important Ashley was to his business. In the last few years, her pictures had managed to increase sales by a significant margin, so he wouldnt complain too much about her late return. Still, Ashley knew she was going to have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks; selecting which shots to use and which to discard, coordinating with Grady to find the best scenic spreads to complement her pictures, as well as setting up arrangements for her next assignment.
It was going to be a busy time for the young woman especially with the changes in her personal life.
Fortunately, Leandra woke not too much later, starting slightly as she sensed the unfamiliar sensations of smooth, warm sheets and a soft mattress. But the feel of Ashleys slight body curled against her own seemed perfectly natural to the dark woman, and she smiled at the clean scent of shampoo and body lotion that clung to her lover. Her arms tightened around the slender waist.
"Good morning." Ashley twisted slightly so she could look up at the ice-blue eyes and tangled hair of her lover. "Did you sleep well?"
Leandra stretched, a purr rumbling in her belly. "Wonderfully," she rasped throatily.
"The bed didnt feel too strange did it? I mean, youre used to sleeping on the ground, so "
"It was fine." Leandra smiled a soft, loving smile. "I adapt quickly especially when I have such great incentive." She glanced down at Ashleys fully-clothed body held tight against her own. Ashley lifted herself up and laid a kiss on Leandras lips. The dark woman sighed. "I cant believe how soft sheets can be."
The two snuggled for a few minutes beneath the sheets, exchanging light caresses that hinted at something deeper, before Ashley decided to get them moving. They shared a simple breakfast of toast and coffee, then began making plans for the day. When Casey stopped by for a visit, she invited herself along for the ride, and Ashley decided to take advantage of her presence to speed things up a bit.
It was decided that Ashley would drive them all into town, where she would leave Casey and Leandra to go shopping while she checked in at work. Casey agreed readily, and Ashley was amused when she noticed the way her niece was flicking glances at Leandra. Shes hooked, the young photographer thought with a grin. Finally Im involved with someone she can relate to someone interesting and exciting. Casey liked things that were different and unpredictable which was one of the things that had cemented her bond with Ashley. Leandra had lived a shady life as a poacher and smuggler, then spent four years living with giant jungle cats she was about as different and unpredictable as a person could be! Small wonder then that Casey was fascinated by her.
The town of Silver Falls was situated about a quarter hour drive from Ashleys house; quiet, serene and untroubled, the town was supported by year-round tourists who came to visit the beautiful forests that bordered the mountains to the north. Driving along the winding road that led into town, Ashley glanced at her partner sitting next to her in the passenger seat, trying to gauge her mood. Leandras face was tense, her eyes staring straight ahead and her breathing somewhat hurried.
Reaching out a hand, Ash petted the dark woman on the thigh. "You okay?"
Leandra nodded shortly. "Fine."
"Will you be alright with Casey? I can come with you if you want me to."
"No, I-I can manage." Leandra took a deep breath and tried hard to relax. It was difficult for her though. The journey back to civilization had been something of a blur in her mind, and Leandra was trying to remember the last time shed gone shopping before her jungle exile.
In the back seat, Casey watched the interactions of the two grown-ups curiously. She could sense Leandras nervousness, and noticed the way Ashleys touch seemed to calm her instantly. "The shops should be pretty quiet," she put in. "Most people around here prefer to go camping or stuff on the weekends. Well be okay Leandra, trust me."
Leandra nodded again, looking around outside at the neatly-spaced shops and houses that lined the streets.
Ashley pulled over outside one of the department stores and let Leandra and Casey out of the car. Unwinding the window, she handed her dark-haired lover a plastic card. "Thats my savings account," she explained. "Casey knows the pass-code, so just use it to buy whatever you like." Leandra opened her mouth to protest, but Ashley insisted. "I want you to at least have clothes that fit you properly Leandra. You can pay me back later if you want to, but dont argue with me now."
Leandra read the stubborn expression on the younger womans face, and reluctantly pocketed the card. "Fine."
"Well meet back here in an hour, okay?" The blonde eyed her niece sternly. "You behave yourself," she said seriously. "I dont want you making things harder for Leandra than they already are."
Casey rolled her eyes and shifted her feet. Shed been caught shoplifting a few times this last year, and had more recently developed quite an acid tongue that she liked to exercise against the shop assistants. "I wont smart-mouth anyone," she promised sullenly. "And Ill make sure we stay out of trouble." Glancing aside, she shot Leandra a crooked grin.
Ashley saw the look, and frowned. She glared at Leandra. "And you play nice with the people, okay? No growling, no snarling, and no destroying the merchandise."
Leandra smiled. "Ill try to restrain myself."
Ashley looked from one set of eyes to the other, then, satisfied the two were going to behave themselves, she blew a quick kiss towards Leandra and pulled away from the curb. One hour, she thought as she glanced in the rearview mirror. How much trouble could they possibly find in an hour?
Left alone, Casey immediately grabbed Leandras hand and began pulling her towards the automatic doors leading into the department store. "Come on lets go spend some of Ashs money!"
Following somewhat more hesitantly after her enthusiastic guide, Leandra flinched as they entered the store and were immediately caught under the glare of the bright fluorescent lighting that was universally adopted by all retail shopping centers. The dark woman glanced around, taking stock of her environment in a single glance as she had trained herself to do during her exile. There were only a few groups of people wandering the aisles today, their voices mixing with the sound of classical music played through invisible speakers. The air was filled overwhelmingly with conflicting smells disinfectant, perfume, and the subtle scent of pressed and cleaned fabric. Leandra felt exposed in the artificial light, and had to restrain the urge to flee. The survival instincts that shed honed in the jungle had instilled in Leandra a natural inclination towards staying hidden in the background, unseen. As she followed Casey towards the womens clothing section of the store, Leandras eyes darted all around with penetrating intensity, and she concentrated on blending in with the other shoppers.
Her guide, however, did not seem to adhere to a similar set of ideals. Casey strode purposefully down the aisles, chin lifted, wearing a slightly amused smirk. The other shoppers didnt even glance at Leandra, but a few of them stared at the young teenager from out of the corners of their eyes. Caseys bright green hair, aggressively assertive demeanor, and leather-and-denim clothing made her stand out in the neatly-ordered store, and she seemed to actually enjoy the attention.
"So, what sort of stuff do you want to look at?" Casey asked as they reached their destination. "I dont really see you as the dress-wearing sort, right?"
Leandra smiled and shook her head. "Lets stick with jeans and T-shirts for now, okay?"
"Sure thing." Casey lead them to the racks of variously arranged cotton shirts and began to pick through them. "Any preference for color?"
"Umm n-no, I dont think so." Leandra eyed the clothing curiously.
"Been a long time since you had a choice, huh?" Casey observed with a smile.
"Yeah it has."
"You wanna check out the shoe department, too." Casey glanced meaningfully at Leandras bare feet. "You step on some broken glass or something, and youll be hobbling for a while."
"I doubt it." Leandra lifted one foot and showed the girl her callused soles. "My feet are pretty tough. I can walk over sharp rocks and thorns and they dont hurt me. Its more comfortable like this."
Casey shrugged. "Alright, theyre your feet."
Sorting through the racks shrewdly, Casey helped select three T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, and a pair of sweat-pants for Leandra. The dark woman didnt bother trying the clothes on; she simply held them against her body to determine their fit, confident that shed be able to live with any minor faults. As they wandered through the womens fashion section, Leandra noticed a store security officer tailing them discretely.
"Looks like theyve decided were the suspicious types," she noted to her companion.
Casey glanced over at the neatly-dressed man and rolled her eyes. "Thats what you get when youre a teenager," she frowned. "Every shop I go to these days, they always look at me like Im about to club em with a sack of pennies or something!" She stared mutely at the detective for several moments, waiting for him to realize hed been spotted, then turned away and deliberately ignored his presence. "Come on."
Leandra smiled as her younger companion led them into the lingerie section. Glancing behind, she noticed the in-store detective had decided not to pursue them any further. Looking around at the various lacy undergarments, Leandras interest in shopping suddenly rose a few notches, and she slowed her strides accordingly.
Casey stopped beside the taller woman. "Need something here, too?"
"I guess so." Leandra reached out to run her fingers along the satin cloth of a fringed teddy, a slight smile twitching the corners of her lips upwards. "Maybe it might be nice to have something special to wear something Ashley might like."
Casey grinned fully, seeing instantly where Leandras mind was headed. This was an aspect shed not considered when she first learned her aunt was dating another woman, but Casey was willing to embrace it. "You mean something she might like to see you in?
"Yeah." Leandra glanced at the youth curiously. "Is there something wrong with wanting to look good for the woman I love?"
"Of course not. Its just " Casey hesitated. "Its a little weird talking about Ash like that, thats all."
"Because shes your aunt, or because Im a woman?"
Casey shrugged. "Ash is a lot more than just my aunt," she explained simply. "Shes my best friend. I mean, I dont really think of her as Auntie Ashley, you know? Shes just my friend. Its weird talking about her like this because well " Casey sucked on her lower lip. "Ash doesnt really do much in this particular field, if you know what I mean. She never has. I always just figured she put most of her passion into her work rather than you know into the bedroom."
Leandra grinned rakishly. "You think shes a prude?"
"I didnt say that!" Casey held up a hand in protest. "Its just "
"I can tell you right now, Casey, that Ashley is just as passionate and energetic a lover as she is a photographer," Leandra said, her eyes sparkling playfully. "Where do you think I got these bruises on my collar."
Casey stared as Leandra pulled her shirt to the side, revealing several faded patches of what looked suspiciously like teeth-marks. She hastily averted her gaze. "You can spare me the details," she said wryly, turning her attention back to the racks of lingerie.
The two women browsed along the aisle in silence for a time, before Casey checked a glance at the taller woman. "Leandra?"
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Whats it like? Being with a woman, I mean?"
Leandra stopped looking at the lacy undergarments and gave the teenager her full attention. "Are you asking in general, or ?"
Casey blushed. "Yeah, general is good. I mean " She paused, considering. "Were doing sex ed in school right now, and one of the girls asked about that stuff. The teacher got all nervous and said he couldnt answer because it wasnt part of the material hed been given. It was pretty stupid, I thought. You know, were there to learn about this stuff, but its not much good to anyone who happens to be gay, right?"
Leandra sighed. "I guess they just dont want to have to think about it," she said quietly. "Some things never change."
"Yeah. Like I said, pretty stupid. So I was just kinda curious, you know?"
"Yeah, I understand." Leandra thought for a moment, wondering what she should say. Shed never really had to justify, defend or explain her sexual orientation before; no-one had dared say anything about it during her years as a smuggler, and it hadnt been an issue during her exile. "I dont really know what I can tell you. Ive never been with a man before, so I cant really compare it to anything."
"So youve always known you liked girls?"
"I figured it out fairly young, yeah. But youve got to understand, I figured out a lot of things young and not all them were good."
Casey nodded. "Dont worry. Im not into drugs or anything like that." She paused. "What did your parents think?"
"I never told them." Leandra was silent for a moment, remembering sadly the faces of her mother and father. "I didnt tell them about a lot of things in my life. But my brother knew I was gay, and it was never a problem for him really. He admired me a lot when we were younger, and I doubt he cared much who I was sleeping with."
"I see." Casey listened attentively, remembering what little information Ash had told her about Leandra last night. "Ive thought about it," she remarked casually. "You know about being with another girl. I guess it might be cool " She caught Leandras glance, and laughed. "Dont get me wrong or nothing, okay. I like guys just fine. But say if I was out somewhere, and a good looking girl started coming on to me Id probably go along with it. No point limiting my experiences, right?"
Leandra smiled. "Right."
Casey fingered the cloth of a lacey nighty absently. "Ive never told anyone that," she said quietly. "Not even Ash, and I tell her pretty much anything."
Leandra saw a slight wavering in Caseys confident shell, and she nodded. "I understand and I wont tell anyone if you dont want me too." She smiled, remembering Shar-Ranjana. "Believe me, I know the importance of keeping secrets."
"Thanks." Casey gave the older woman a grateful smile, then turned back to the clothing hanging on the racks. Her smile turned into a rakish grin as she spotted something interesting. "What about this?" She pulled out a satin slip made from tiger-pattern cloth, and held it against Leandras upper body. "Perfect!"
Leandra rolled her eyes and took the slip from the teenager. "Ashleys already seen me in more tiger stripes than she could count, and she can have me in the real thing anytime she wants. I think something different would be better something sexy that shed appreciate."
"Okaaay how about this?" Casey pulled down another article and held it up.
Leandra laughed, studying the imitation-leather bustier with its silver inlaid chains. "Ummm I think that might be a little on the kinky side, dont you?"
Casey waggled her eyebrows saucily. "You never know might be just what she needs to broaden her horizons." She looked Leandra up and down, taking knowing measure of her strong, predatory aura. "Im betting it wouldnt be the first time youd worn something like this, huh?"
Leandra lifted a single brow in amusement. "Maybe."
"Well then no harm in introducing Ash to something new. She might like it."
Leandra considered, and had to admit the idea gave her a tingle. Memories of nights spent with former lovers rose in her mind, and she imagined sharing such erotic delights with the woman who had won her heart. After a moment of delicious fantasy, however, Leandra shook her head. "I think we should find a middle ground for starters, shall we? Something a little tamer?" She scanned the arranged undergarments searchingly. "Maybe this." She pulled out an elegant black satin slip and panty set and held it against her body, nodding. "This is nice."
Casey pursed her lips, considering. "I guess."
Leandra smiled, already knowing how she was going to thank Ashley for buying her the clothes. "Trust me with some appropriate lighting and a romantic setting, thisll be just the thing."
The blonde teenager groaned and covered her ears. "Something tells me Im gonna be putting up with a whole lotta make-out sessions now that youre around."
"Hey, I cant help it. Ashleys gorgeous and shes a great kisser."
"Yeah, well, save the lovey-dovey crap for when Im not around, if you can control yourself." Casey laughed. "If I have to think of what you two get up too when youre alone, itll scar me for life!"
Leandra laughed as well, and added the lingerie to the other clothes. She had to admit, she was liking Casey a lot. Even before her stay in the jungle, Leandra had never had an easy time making friends, and it was nice to meet someone besides Ashley who she could feel comfortable just hanging out with. "Come on, lets finish this up and see if we can find something to eat before we have to meet back up with Ashley."
* * *
"Ive been in this business for twenty years, Richards, and in that time Ive had to put up with a whole lotta crap from stuck-up, know-it-all photographers just like you, who thought their talent put them above the rules! You were supposed to be back here, assignment completed, two weeks ago! You had no right to rush off like that into the jungle without first consulting me!"
Ashley blinked innocently at the man berating her from across his desk, the slight smile on her lips entirely unconcerned. Joseph Harding, editor-in-chief of the popular magazine Wild Planet, was a bear of a man. Standing easily six feet tall and weighing at least two hundred and thirty pounds, he towered over the young blonde in all his blustering fury. Beneath his full beard, Mr. Hardings face was bright red, and his neck was swallowed up by his broad shoulders, making him look somewhat like an oversized bulldog. But Ashley knew her bosss bark was far worse than his bite. She had been working for Wild Planet many years now, and this wasnt the first time her antics had landed her in hot water. So she waited with a patient, expectant expression for Joseph to cool down.
It wasnt a long wait.
Glaring down at the diminutive blonde, Joseph saw his words have absolutely no effect, and heaved a great sigh. Taking a calming breath, he looked again at the selection of sample shots laid out before him pictures taken by Ashley on her recent expedition. Glancing back at the photographer, he scowled. "If it werent for your damn luck, Richards, Id have fired you a thousand times before today," he muttered.
Ashley smiled complacently. "Lucks all well and good, Mr. Harding, but youre looking at talent, plain and simple," she stated calmly. "And as for me taking off without giving notice, I tried to get in contact with you, and your secretary told me you were unavailable."
"So you shouldnt have gone!"
"In which case, youd be tearing me up right now for missing one of the greatest opportunities ever to come along." Ash regarded her boss sternly. "You know as well as I do that even the chance however remote of shooting a white tiger in the wild was worth the risk and the delay. And even though I didnt find it, I wasnt wasting my time or your money." She gestured to the still slides images she knew were well above her already high standard, thanks to Leandras assistance. "The rest are just as good maybe better. I dont see what the problem is."
Joseph looked between the slides and his troublesome employee, and scowled. "Fine," he conceded after a moment. "Get the rest of this stuff developed and sorted, and well let this go again."
Ashley smiled charmingly. "Thank you." Rising from her seat, the young blonde turned and walked out the door of Josephs office, glad to got the minor confrontation out of the way.
Wandering through the sprawling office complex that was the hub of the nature magazine, Ashley smiled and exchanged brief pleasantries with her fellow co-workers. The young photographer was well liked by her colleagues with the minor exception of a few photogs like herself, who were somewhat jealous of her talent and good-fortune. Still, Ashleys easy-going temperament, quick wit, and charming good humor made her quite popular around the offices.
Pushing open a door marked with the words Studio PRIVATE, Ashley found herself in a large, professionally-lit room that was designed to revolve around a single stage set against the far wall. Several people milled about in the studio, and Ashley looked around till she found the face she was looking for. When she spotted the tall, slender man wearing thick-lensed glasses, she assumed her most charming smile and headed over.
"Hey James!" she called as she approached. "Can you spare a minute?"
James Grosser glanced up from his work, his face instantly lighting up when he saw who was calling to him. He nodded quickly. "Sh-sure Ash. I heard you were back. Did you have a good trip?"
Ashleys smile was brighter than the sun itself, and completely overwhelmed the nervous man. "Yeah, thanks. I had a great time." It was a well-known fact that James had a crush on the attractive photographer, and Ashley wasnt above using his infatuation to her own advantage. James was a likeable enough fellow the shy, quiet, bookish type and Ashley found his adoration kind of cute. She knew he would never manage to summon the courage to actually ask her out, which saved her from having to offer any rejections, but she made a point of throwing the young man a kind word and a charming smile every now and then. And Ashley knew James was the perfect person to ask for help in her current mission.
"Umm listen, I was wondering if you could do me a really big favor...?" She batted her eyelids hopefully.
James almost fell over himself at the thought that Ashley wanted his help. "Of course! You know you can ask me for anything. What can I do for you?"
"Well, the thing is, I need to get a little time in one of the processing labs. Itll only be a few minutes, I promise, but I have some personal shots I need to handle by myself."
James nodded immediately. "Sure, I think I can work something out. Room 4 should be clear for most of tomorrow, but you know, if you need some film processed Id be happy to do it for you."
"Uhh actually, Id rather do it myself." Ashley assumed a coy, slightly seductive attitude. "The photos are kinda private if you know what I mean "
James took a moment to fully understand the meaning of those words, and when he did, he blushed furiously and cleared his throat. "Well, ah sh-sure, I understand. No problem Ill uh work out a time for you and let you know."
"Thank you." Ashley patted James on the shoulder. "I really appreciate it."
"Ill see you later." Ashley gave him a final crooked grin, then turned and exited the studio. She needed time in the labs to develop the pictures of Leandra and Shar-Ranjana in private, and this was the best way to guarantee that no-one interrupted her. She had the idea of hanging a print of the great white tigress in her bedroom, thinking Leandra would certainly appreciate having a continued reminder of her feline sister that she could look at every morning. And she figured that her little insinuation to James had been reward enough for his help, knowing that imaginations of what the mysterious pictures might be of would keep her admirer wondering for a long time to come.
Pleased with her days work thus far, Ashley headed towards her own work station to catch up on whatever tasks needed doing. She wanted to get everything done as quickly as possible, knowing that Leandra might start getting more nervous if she was late. Thinking of her lover, Ashley said a silent prayer to any gods who might be listening, hoping that they keep Leandra and her guide safe, and out of trouble.
Still, Id better do this stuff quick, she thought. Putting those two together for too long cant be a good thing. A rebellious teenager and a woman whos been living like a giant cat for four years
Yep, better do whatever I have to do and get back to them quickly.
* * *
Ashley replaced the cordless phone on its wall-mount and ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. "Damn it."
After picking up Leandra and Casey who, thankfully, appeared to have stayed out of trouble Ashley drove them all back home, making a quick stop along the way to pick up enough groceries to last at least a few days. She made sure to include a few special treats she thought Leandra might appreciate things the dark woman hadnt been able to enjoy during her life in the jungle. Returning home, Leandra had taken Casey for a walk in the forest to demonstrate some of the skills shed acquired from her association with the great striped cats, while Ashley packed away the fresh food. It was late afternoon by the time Ashley drove her niece home, and when she returned, she decided to make her promised phone-call to her parents before she started dinner. The conversation had been somewhat tense, and the young photographer guessed from that that her parents had been informed of Leandras presence, and also of her involvement with the jungle woman. It had been awkward, but Ashley managed to skirt the issue for the most part, wanting a little time to get settled before she confronted her folks about the changes she was making in her life. Still, even pleading fatigue hadnt been enough to completely get her mom to drop the case, and Ashley had been cornered into agreeing to a dinner visit on Wednesday night.
Sighing, Ashley closed her eyes and hoped the dinner would go okay. It wasnt so much that she was worried what her parents might think of Leandra although that was certainly part of it but rather she felt concern for how their judgement and possible rejection could affect Leandra. Ashley knew the dark woman didnt want their relationship to cause problems between her and her family.
"Hey, Ashley?" Leandras voice called from upstairs. "Could you come up here for a minute? Ive got something for you."
Ashley smiled. "Well might as well give her some warning about Wednesday," she muttered, climbing wearily up the stairs and pushing open the door to her bedroom. "Leandra? What did you want to-?" Ashleys voice choked off at the end of her sentence, her brain unable to complete its sequence of thought as she saw the vision before her.
The bedroom was lit in the soft glow of several-dozen candles positioned on the dresser and bedside tables. Soft music played in the background, and the air was sweet with the scent of burning wax. But it was the sight of Leandra that stole Ashleys breath. The dark woman lay on the bed, clad in a brief satin slip and lace panties that hugged every curve of her toned, powerful body. Dark sapphire eyes glinted in the candle-light, and a seductive smile greeted the young blonde when she finally pulled her eyes away from their feast of flesh and form.
Leandra purred deep in her throat as she watched Ashleys reaction, pleased at the instant look of hunger that filled the younger womans eyes. "I thought wed skip dinner for a while," she said in a voice that dripped with raw animal lust. "Unless youre feeling hungry now ?"
Ashley took a step closer to the dark goddess lying on her bed, her eyelids growing hooded. "Oh, Im feeling hungry now alright." She licked her lips.
"Excellent." Leandra shifted on the bed, assuming a new position which better displayed the finer points of her new lingerie. Running her fingertips along the cloth covering her outer ribcage, she smiled at her lover coyly. "You like it?"
Ashley nodded immediately, all thoughts of family and problematic dinner invitations vanishing. "Very much so."
"I bought it to say thank-you. For everything youve done for me for giving me back my life for understanding me the way you do." Leandra rose to a crouching position and Ashley stepped closer still till their faces were almost touching. "Thank you Ashley for loving me."
Ashleys response was swift and passionate. She crushed her lips against Leandras, her tongue wasting no time gaining access to the dark womans mouth. Leandras hands reached out and began to work at the buttons on Ashleys jeans. As soon as they were off, Ashley pushed Leandra onto her back and straddled her, breathing hard as she pinned her dark lover to the bed and ground her center firmly against a well-muscled abdomen. Her eyes were ablaze with ignited arousal, and she pressed a series of heated kisses over Leandras lips and chest.
Breaking away breathlessly, Leandra smiled up at the younger woman. "Im glad you like it.."
Ashley groaned, her eyes and hands wandering everywhere over Leandras scarcely-veiled body. "God, I think its the sexiest thing Ive ever seen!" she gasped, her voice thick with sudden hunger. Ashley could feel the heat in her belly flare into a sudden bonfire, and she marveled how Leandra could inspire her passion so easily. "You have no idea what you do to me!"
"So tell me." Leandras breathing was also ragged, and she wrapped her hands around Ashleys slender waist to steady her rocking hips. The photographer paused, uncertain.
"I want to know how you feel what you want." Leandras sultry eyes regarded her young love earnestly. "Youve told me everything else, but now I want to hear about your fantasies. About every erotic dream youve ever had no matter how silly you think it is. I want to bring you all the pleasure I possibly can."
Ashley blushed. "Y-you want me to tell you about my fantasies?"
"Uh huh." Leandra smiled crookedly. "Tell me yours and Ill tell you mine."
"Umm " Ash chewed her lower lip, still fully caught up in the moment, but uncertain. No-one had ever asked her about this stuff before, and shed never had the desire to share but Leandra wasnt like any lover shed ever experienced. She gave Leandra a slight smile. "Well some of my fantasies youve already fulfilled."
"Oh? Like what?"
"Like the shower " Ashleys voice was low and shy, but her eyes radiated heat like glowing embers. "And maybe the waterfall morning, too."
"Are there any things youd like to try?" Leandra asked in a smoky tone. "Anything youd like me to do or that youd like to do to me?"
Ashley blushed instantly, and Leandra grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Tell me."
"Welll its not really a fantasy as such, its just something Ive thought about sometimes "
"Ill do anything you ask, Ashley. Anything."
Ash smiled, seeing a whole world of erotic possibilities open up with that simple word. She leaned close to Leandras neck and whispered, "Would you growl for me?"
Both Leandras eyebrows shot up. "What?"
Ashleys hesitated. "You know that growly, rumbly noise you make. The one that vibrates through your chest." Her hands traced the undersides of Leandras breasts, feeling her ribcage expand and contract.
"You want to hear me growl?"
Ashleys blush only intensified at the slight look of amused curiosity in Leandras tone. "Forget it. Its silly, I know, but I just- Ulp!!" Ashley almost bit her tongue in surprise as Leandra twisted beneath her and easily rolled on top of her. In a second, the young blonde found herself pressed hard into the soft mattress by Leandras powerful frame. She tensed on reflex, but melted when a low, rumbling growl rolled over her senses, and she felt the vibrations send shockwaves to her core. The simple sound was the very essence of Leandras animal side; primal, carnal, and deeply arousing.
Leandra grinned as she felt the instant effect her growl had on her lover. "That turns you on, doesnt it?"
Ashley struggled for breath, unable to fight her bodys reaction. She nodded, exhilarated by the sound Leandra made, and the predatory gleam in her crystalline eyes. "I-its silly, isnt it?"
"Not if you like it." The growl continued deep in Leandras throat even as she spoke. The dark woman pressed her lips against Ashleys neck and nipped lightly at the skin, feeling the young photographer shudder beneath her body. Running her hands down Ashleys chest, Leandra quickly divested her lover of shirt and bra, then gripped her wrists lightly and spread her arms wide. "This is going to take a long time," she purred. "I want you to keep your arms exactly where they are. Can you do that?"
Ashley whimpered slightly as she felt the heat of Leandras right thigh press against her highly-sensitized center, but she managed a quick nod.
Leandra smiled. "If you touch me, Ill stop," she warned softly. "Are you sure you can behave yourself or should I tie your hands to the bedposts?"
"Oh God..!" Ashley squirmed, her arousal reaching an almost overwhelming level at the simple suggestion. In truth, the idea of being tied, completely at her lovers mercy, was extremely appealing at that moment, but Ashley sensed Leandra wanted her to do this with willpower alone, and so decided to take the harder road. "I-I can behave," she whispered.
Leandra smiled, pleased. "Good." Soft lips planted a trail of kisses down Ashleys throat and between her breasts. "When Im done I promise you can do anything to me that you want. But for now, let me show you how much I love you."
Releasing her hold on Ashleys wrists, Leandras hands began to explore the younger womans body, running feather-light touches down her arms, teasing her breasts till they ached for a firmer touch, then skirting downwards along her ribcage to her outer thighs. Leandra followed this path with her lips and tongue, seeking out the most sensitive regions of Ashleys body and tormenting her with tantalizing caresses that only stoked the embers of her passion to even greater heat.
Ashley struggled against the urge to put her hands on Leandras head so she could guide her movements, grabbing for the bedsheets to resist the temptation. No lover had ever sparked her ardor the way Leandra did. There was never any awkward fumbling with Leandra no need for directions or instructions. The dark womans touch was confident and knowledgeable. She seemed to know every erogenous zone in Ashleys entire body including some the young photographer had never known existed. Ashley panted as Leandras mouth moved nearer to the center of her need, a fine sheen of sweat already glistening over body, making her glow in the candle-light.
Leandra smiled as she neared her goal, detecting the musky scent of Ashleys arousal. Positioning herself between the blonde womans eagerly spread legs, Leandra took a moment just to enjoy the sight of her lover exposed so intimately for her attention, before she bent her head forward and ran her tongue along the slick folds. Ashley bucked her hips, a needful squeak escaping her throat before she settled. Leandra grinned, and began to trace the outer lips of Ashleys sex, using her hands to hold the young woman steady beneath her.
Ashley moaned and whimpered, her jaw clenched tight with the effort it took to control her need to touch Leandra. Pleasure sparked from Leandras devoted ministrations rushed through her body, and Ashley cried out in delight when she felt two fingers slowly penetrate her core. Her cry of pleasure became a growl of frustration when she found her lovers grip on her waist prevented her from controlling the rhythm of their love-making, and she felt more than heard Leandra chuckle.
"Patience," the dark woman counseled softly, pausing in her efforts. "Just relax I know what Im doing."
"Urgh!" Ashley struggled for breath as she willed herself to give Leandra total control over her body. A moment later, she felt the silken sensation of the dark womans tongue against her clitoris, and felt the deliciously long fingers resume their thrusting. After several minutes, the first tingles of climax began to pulse like a warning through her blood, and Ashley bit her lip to keep from begging Leandra to go faster.
Leandra felt Ashley pulse around her fingers, and heard the ragged edge in her breathing. For a second she considered backing off, letting the younger woman calm before she continued, but then she decided against it. Wrapping her tongue around the glistening bundle of nerves that crowned Ashleys sex, Leandra stroked her lover with firm lashes as she thrust harder with her hand. A few moments later, she was rewarded with the sudden cry of ecstasy as Ashleys body went rigid, and she felt her lover climax against her mouth and around her buried digits. Her devoted attentions continued till the orgasm subsided, and Leandra drew back to take in the sight of Ashleys sated body.
The young blonde struggled to gain control of her breathing as she sat up to thank Leandra. But as soon as she began to move her arms, she found them instantly pinned, and smoky sapphire eyes regarded her with hungry intent.
"Uh uh uh," Leandra growled. "Im a long way from being finished with you yet, my love. That was just a little something to take the edge off."
Leandra pressed her glistening fingers against Ashleys lips, smiling when the young blonde caught the scent of her own arousal. "I want to hear you climax again," she whispered. "I want to feel you shudder and writhe from my touch. And I want to see how many times I can do that to you before your body cant take anymore.." She pressed Ashleys hands back down against the mattress. "Are you sure you can control yourself?"
Ashley was still dizzy from her first orgasm, and that dizziness increased as she understood Leandras intentions. Still, she nodded, and lay back quietly against the bed, feeling the air cool against her sweat-slicked body. "I can take it." She paused. "N-not that Im complaining or anything, but just how much more were you planning on giving me? I mean you know "
Leandra grinned as she began working her way back down her lovers body, tasting the salt from her sweat and purring. "Lets just say Im going to make sure its slow " She gently bit Ashleys right nipple. " intense " Her teeth moved on to the left. " and utterly satisfying."
Ashley whimpered as she lay back and stared up at the ceiling, bracing herself for what she had no doubts would be an extremely thorough ravishing. She was about to become the most satiated woman in the western world.
Continued in Part 6 (Conclusion)
Return to The Bard's Corner