I tapped my foot against the floor of the car impatiently, wanting to get back to my babies. My father looked at me in amusement. "Cool it, Kate. We'll be there soon."
I sighed. "Sorry. I just want to get back to them."
My father nodded understandingly. "We'll only be there for a week, honey."
"Yeah, but I'll have less access to them than I've had in their lives."
Daddy nodded. He looked across at me. "Baby, you're only fourteen. Are you sure?"
I nodded. "Gwen and Matt are my babies. I've petted them and fussed over them since they were born. They know me."
Sudenly, Daddy stopped the car. "We're here." As I stepped out, a kind looking woman and a boy came out.
The woman smiled and said clearly, "I am Sally Reid. This is my son, Stephen." She turned to the boy. "Honey, get them out, would you?"
The boy glanced at me uncomfortably. I looked him over. At about fifteen, he wasn't handsome, but he wasn't exactly plain either. He was normal. I looked at Mrs. Reid and said firmly to Stephen, "I'm coming."
He looked relieved. "Okay. C'mon. I want you to meet everyone else." Quickly, he undid the tricky latch on the truck.
I stepped forward. "Open the door and step away," I instructed. He nodded and immediately, two leopards raced out and ran to me. The beautiful creatures purred and wrapped themselves around my legs. I laughed and hugged Gwen. She purred again.
Stephen looked at the cats longingly. "Wow. I've never seen anyone who can connect with leopards like that."
I smiled up him and told him, "I raised them since they were babies. They love me like their mother."
He shook his head. "No, it goes deeper than that. Anyway," he said abruptly, "I have their enclosure ready."
I stood suddenly and caught his hand. "Kneel down, Stephen." He obeyed. I knelt beside him and called the cats. They came running to me, but they stopped short when they saw Stephen. He cocked his head at them and I called them again. The two cats came hesitantly and I wrapped my arms around Stephen. I glanced up, noting that he was surprised, but he simply put his arms around me and let me nestle against his chest. The two leopards padded over to me and nudged me. Matt pawed at Stephen softly enough that he wouldn't be hurt. At last, I let go of Stephen. The two cats, now satisfied that I was fine and Stephen meant me no harm, began padding away silently.
Stephen got up and said quickly, "Call them. We need to put them in their pen."
I nodded. Quickly, efficiently, Stephen penned the leopards. He smiled at me eagerly and asked, "Do you want to see the other cats?"
I nodded again. He led me over to a nearby pen. As soon as we arrived, a huge male African lion bounded over. I smiled and asked in delight, "What's his name?"
"Jay. He's breathtaking, isn't he?"
I tentatively touched my fingertips to the metal bars keeping us seperate."Yes. Yes, he's spectacular."
I was suddenly aware that Stephen was standing close behind me. I looked up at him and he smiled down at me. "You're short," he said in amusement.
"No, I'm not, you're tall!"
"Maybe," he agreed comfortably, "But I'm still taller than you are."
I grinned. "You're cute when you smile like that."
He flushed. "Like what?"
"I don't know. Mostly friendly, a little smug, kind of pleased."
He went redder. "Will I have to deal with you saying I'm cute every time I smile for the rest of the week?" he asked.
I pretended to be thinking. "Maybe."
"Do you want to go into the lion's pen?" he asked.
"Sure. I'm Katherina, by the way. Most people call me Kate."
He gazed at me. "You look more like a Rina." He shook his head suddenly. "Well, you know my name, but call me Fen."
I nodded and he swept the door to the lion cage open. I slipped inside with him right behind me. He looked around and smiled. I smiled back. Suddenly, the lion, Jay came dashing up. Fen went white when he saw the lion running toward us, but the cat sat down by my feet and pushed his head under my hand. I laughed and flung my arms around his neck. Fen watched in amazement. "Wow."
I looked up. "What?"
"Jay's not a social creature. He slips away whenever people come into his pen."
I stroked the silky mane with my fingers. "I like cats."
Fen shook his head. "I wouldn't have let you in if I knew he would come. Let's go." He held out his hand.
I stared at him. Suddenly, I knew that I was falling for a boy I had known for all of half an hour.
He mistook my silence for refusal. He looked a little panicky. "Come on, Rina."
I got up and followed him out.
In the days that followed, I fell more deeply in love with Fen with every passing moment. Oblivious boy, he never noticed. And then I woke up.