This story took first prize in the Pfeiffer Phoenix literary magazine. I wrote it at 4 o'clock in the morning, after recalling a crazy dream about a cabin, a were-panther, and a handsome intruder...

Enjoy!

Lilly and the Were-panther

Lying on a soft mattress in a gorgeous log cabin resting on the peak of a North Carolina mountain, I had to release a satisfied sigh. This vacation was absolutely blissful so far. Earlier in the day, I had gone horseback riding with my parents and younger brother, and we had just enjoyed a supper of thick, juicy cheeseburgers. Now, the parents and brother were on a mission to fetch more food from the town down the mountain, and I was left alone in the cabin to do whatever I pleased.

I pleased to read, so I reached for the thick novel lying on the bedside table and picked up where I had left off, tossing aside the tasseled bookmark. I quickly became engrossed in the story, which was about a young man searching for the truth about his family's past.

The protagonist was just about to discover who his real father was, when a crash resounded from downstairs. I jumped, nearly tumbling from the mattress, the novel flopping to the floor.

"Is anyone there?" a resonant, unfamiliar voice called from below.

Quite frankly, I was terrified. I scrambled to my feet and dropped to my knees, reaching under the bed for the rifle my parents always insisted on bringing when we went on vacation. Sometimes it pays to be born in North Carolina.

"Who's there?" I called, glancing toward the edge of the loft.

"Ma'am, I'm here to help," the man replied.

Help? What the heck is this guy talking about? Slowly, I straightened, clutching the rifle to my chest in a death-grip. "I'm coming downstairs," I announced, wincing when my voice emerged shaky and high-pitched. "And I have--I have a gun!"

"Good," the man called back. He sounded inordinately pleased. "You know how to use it?"

I glanced down at the weapon in my hands. "Kind of…" My knees were shaking. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't make it down the stairs. I was something of a crack-shot with a rifle, but had no confidence in my skills at loading and cocking and doing all that other gun stuff.

"Well you might need to use it," the man told me.

I made my way down the steps and into the dark living-dining area below. "Where are you?" I called into the darkness.

"I'm gonna turn on the light, ma'am," my guest replied. "Hang on just a second." Booted feet scuffed across the linoleum of the kitchen floor, and I immediately aimed the rifle in that direction.

The lights clicked on, and I blinked, then quickly turned my gaze on the man standing in the kitchen. My resolve to shoot him instantly weakened. He looked like Robert Redford--only, Robert Redford how he looked when he was around my age, in his early twenties. I felt my grip on the gun go slack, then quickly shook myself. Lilly, even hot guys can be bad guys.

"Hey! I'm on your side, lady!" The hot guy held up his hands, wearing a look of innocence, but I instantly noticed the pistol on his belt.

"What are you doing in our cabin?" I demanded, adrenaline and other weird things rushing through my veins. I motioned to the busted-down kitchen door with the barrel of the gun. "You broke down the door!"

The handsome intruder winced. "Yeah. I know. I'm sorry about that. I just--I wasn't sure if anyone was here."

"You could have knocked!" I told him indignantly.

He shrugged and nodded. "You're right. I could have--I could have done that." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, seeming to mull something over in his mind. "Look, lady, this is gonna sound crazy--" He took a step forward.

Panicking, I turned the rifle on him. "Hey! Did I say you could move? Take one more step, and I'll--"

"Shoot me?" An inexplicable--and ridiculously charming--grin tilted his lips. "When your gun's not even cocked and maybe not even loaded?"

I closed my eyes, cursing my lack of training with firearms. Then I opened my eyes, because, quite absurdly, they were hungry for more young-Robert-Redford-felon. I decided to give him a chance. Something that pretty couldn't be that bad. "Explain yourself," I ordered. "And if you don't, I'll brain you with this thing."

"Okay, okay." He lowered his arms, and the maddeningly appealing smile slowly faded from his face. "Please believe me when I tell you that I'm here to help you. You don't know it yet, but you're in danger."

"In danger?" The barrel of the rifle lowered somewhat. "From what?"

"Heh. Yeah. From what…" He ran a hand through his short, thick blond hair. "That's the gonna-sound-crazy part."

"Look, Robert Redford, I'm an English major. I can deal with crazy," I assured him.

To my surprise, he burst out laughing, throwing his head back and giving me another tantalizing glimpse at those incredible pearly-whites. "English major, huh?" His gorgeous blue-green eyes gave me a once-over. "I guess you read a lot, then."

"Well, duh." The rifle barrel lowered another few inches.

"Ever read any fantasy? Sci-fi? Horror?" attractive-young-Robert-Redford asked, taking a cautious step toward me.

"Well… Yes…" I wondered where he was going with this. A slight chill shivered its way up my spine as I thought about the implications of such a question.

Obviously encouraged by not being brained, the infuriatingly attractive intruder took another step toward me, his eyes intense. "We've wasted enough time already, so I'm gonna have to tell it like it is." He grimaced, spreading his hands in an almost apologetic gesture, then took a deep breath. "Here goes: I'm on the trail of a were-panther."

The barrel of the rifle dropped to aim at the ground as I stared incredulously at my new acquaintance. I was suddenly struck with a feeling of bittersweet sorrow. This man was obviously mad… quite, quite mad. He was like a hero from a tragic novel--beautiful and heroic and heart-breakingly insane. Quietly, gently, with all the assurance of the well-read, I informed him, "Robert Redford, there are no were-panthers."

That seemed to annoy him. He worked his perfectly sculpted jaw, balling his hands into fists. "Lady, my name is Luke Pierce. And I'm not crazy." He took another step toward me, and this time, I stepped back. "If you don't wanna believe me, fine. I'll carry you bodily down the mountain if I have to."

The elation of being in a conversation with such an attractive specimen of manliness suddenly morphed into a panicky fear that the manliness might be used against me. I felt at a distinct disadvantage. "Rob--uh, Luke, you don't want to take another step further."

"Lady--"

"Lilly," I corrected automatically… then instantly regretted it. Now the madman knew my name.

"Lilly," he growled, "the creature is probably very close by now. You need to trust me."

"So you're an experienced were-panther hunter, are you, Agent Mulder?" I shot back, unable to contain my English major sarcasm.

"As a matter of fact, I am." He lifted his chin, seeming quite pleased with himself. "Now put down the gun, and--"

An earsplitting screech suddenly shattered all my doubts as to my attractive intruder's sanity--and instilled some doubts as to my own. I wheeled to face the door, aiming the rifle toward it. "What the heck was that!?" I squeaked out, although I already knew the answer.

"Were-panther," Luke answered flatly, a smug smile briefly curving his lips.

"Ah. I see." I swallowed, chagrined--and also somewhat terrified. "Maybe we should… Uhm… The door," I managed to stutter out.

"Yeah. I shoulda thought about that." Luke winced and moved toward the door.

Another fearsome screech ran its claws down my nerves, sounding much closer than the first.

Luke quickly picked up the door, and with a grunt, shoved it back between the posts. "Lilly, you should probably get upstairs."

In keeping with my generally ridiculous nature and tendency to mimic characters from novels, I shook my head. What great hero from literature would scurry up the stairs at the first sign of trouble? "I can help you," I informed my intruder-turned-protector. My voice still sounded shaky, but I managed to keep it from squeaking. "With this gun," I added, then rolled my eyes at my statement of the obvious.

Luke just stared at me for a moment. But before he could say anything, there was another screech, then a crash. I turned just in time to see a huge black panther land gracefully on the floor of the den area. The window behind it was shattered completely.

My eyes went wide. "Sweet son of a biscuit eater," I murmured in shock, taking a step backward and bumping into the firm, masculine chest of Luke Pierce.

"Get behind me." Luke was suddenly moving in front of me, his voice low and dangerous, his pistol drawn.

This was no time to be arguing political correctness. I got behind the man. Peering around his lean, toned body, I could see the panther stalking toward us. Then I watched in amazement as it morphed before my eyes, slowly shifting its features until it was no longer a giant cat crawling on all fours, but a tall, beautiful woman with long dark hair and a slinky black dress.

"Hello, Luke," she purred, brushing her hair back from her shoulders.

"Fanny Lou," Luke replied in a growl.

Fanny Lou. I had to grin at that. The creature's name sounded more Little House on the Prairie than Twilight Zone.

"I thought I might find you here," Fanny Lou the were-panther continued, pacing sinuously from side to side. "In your beloved mountains."

"Well you were right," Luke told her hoarsely. "And you were stupid." He cocked the pistol with a conspicuous click and aimed it right at her. "Your killing spree is at an end."

"Hmm. I don't think so." She shook her head, smiling. When she finally noticed me standing behind her enemy, her smile turned scary. She looked… hungry. "Why, Luke, who's the redhead?"

"She's not your supper, if that's what you mean," Luke retorted, taking a step toward the were-panther.

"You like her," Fanny Lou replied, her grin broadening. She had big, shiny white teeth, and I instantly hated her. Not only had she apparently killed lots of people, but she was also far hotter than I would ever be. …It's a girl thing. "I can smell it," the were-panther continued. "You like her." Her expression changed into a look of mock pity. "Oh, what a shame. You won't have much time to get to know each other while I'm chewing on your flesh."

I shuddered. Okay, so I more than hated this woman. I loathed her. She was unfairly beautiful, supernaturally murderous, and just plain gross.

"Not today," Luke countered.

Then everything happened in an instant. The were-panther hunter squeezed the trigger, and the gun went off with a bang. At the same time, the woman in black transformed into a panther, ducking low, then launching herself at Luke.

Before I could even react to what was going on, Luke shoved me backward. I slid across the kitchen floor, bounced off a chair, and came to a halt in front of the oven, somehow managing to keep a hold on my rifle. Stars danced in front of my eyes. And here I had thought that was just a metaphor… Blinking rapidly, I climbed to my feet--my jaw dropping as horror set in from what I was seeing.

Luke was on the ground, pinned down by Fanny Lou in panther form. She had somehow knocked the pistol from his hand, and he was reaching desperately for it with one hand, the other pushing her snarling face back from his throat. And there was blood--blood on his shirt and jacket. He looked up and saw me.

"Lilly, get outta here!" he shouted hoarsely.

I shook my head dumbly and lifted my gun. "I'm not leaving you!" I replied with what I hoped was a fair amount of heroism. Then I realized that even if I managed to shoot Fanny Lou, I would probably hit Luke as well.

"Lilly, go!" Luke ordered again. His face was pale, but his jaw was clenched with determination.

I slowly shook my head, shifting my grip on the rifle. "This isn't a tragedy," I told my self quietly, firmly. And then I ran across the cabin, lifted the rifle over my head, and swung it right at the skull of the were-panther. The impact was jarring. I shouted, "Ow!" in unison with the were-panther's shriek of pain and shock.

Then the creature spun on me, leaping off of Luke's prone form. Her eyes were red with rage--literally glowing red. That was creepy enough. Then when she started speaking, I nearly expected pipe organ music to begin playing.

"Stupid girl," she hissed, her voice a mixture of humanness and cat-like yowl.

I took a step backward. "Luke is r-right," I stammered, raising the rifle. "Your k-k-killing spree ends n-now."

"You fool," Fanny Lou snarled. "You don't even know how to defeat me."

"But I do." It was Luke's voice.

BANG!

The panther's body jerked, the burning eyes widening, then glazing over. The creature collapsed to the ground in a heap of silky black.

I looked up from the body to see Luke standing there, still aiming his pistol, his chin lifted, jaw clenched. Wow. He looked… good. And then he collapsed to his knees.

"Luke!" I cried, hopping over the panther's body and dropping to my knees at my rescuer's side. I set the rifle down beside me and reached to touch his arm. "Are you alright?"

He nodded stiffly, not meeting my eyes, still gripping his gun. "Yeah. I'm fine." His voice sounded pinched.

"Oh my gosh! She scratched you!" I pointed out a bit stupidly. My eyes fixed with dismay on the ragged gash in his side. "Luke, you're hurt!"

"Yeah…" He finally met my eyes. His were wide and a bit wild. He nodded toward the were-panther. "Watch this. This is the cool part."

Raising an eyebrow, I turned to look at the body--just in time to see it disintegrate to a fine, gray powder. "Wow." I turned back to Luke with a half-smile. "Convenient."

"Yeah…" He smiled, too, boyishly, swaying on his knees.

"Are you okay?" I asked, then winced. "Let's just go with the fact that you're not okay." I reached out and took hold of the hand that was gripping the pistol. "You can let this go now." I gave it a tug… then another tug. "What's in there, anyway? Silver bullets."

"Nah. Platinum." He shook his head, blinking rapidly as I managed to rip the gun from his fingers. He grinned at me again, somehow managing to look dashing, goofy, and proud all at the same time. "Were-panthers're much more sophisticated 'n werewolves," he slurred. Then he frowned, pressing a hand to his side and swearing. "That hurts." He suddenly lurched sideways, and I reached out and caught him.

"Robert Redford, you need to go to the hospital or something," I told him sternly, trying not to sound as panicked as I felt. My heart was beating painfully hard for this guy.

"Can't." He shifted against my shoulder, maybe trying to sit up straighter. "Have to sweep that cat up."

That was one of the craziest things I had ever heard anyone say. I chuckled a bit. "Uhm… No. You don't. I'll do that. First we have to take a look at your injuries, you dunce."

I managed to get him to the couch, swatting my brother's things to the floor. Then I rushed to the downstairs bedroom to retrieve the first-aid kit my family always brings on vacation. Next, I commenced to performing first-aid on my attractive rescuer, somehow managing not to be distracted by his incredibly fit torso as I bandaged the gash running along his ribs on his right side. It wasn't as bad as I had first thought it to be, and Luke insisted on not going to the hospital.

"You're a good enough nurse," he murmured with a weary smile, patting my hand as I slid his shirt and jacket back into place. "First you save my life by attacking a were-panther, and then you fix me up like a pro. We make a good team, Lilly. You're pretty freakin' talented."

"Well so are you," I replied, blushing. I hate it that I can't control the blush. "You saved my life, too."

"I guess I did." He appeared thoroughly pleased with himself. Taking a deep breath, he sat up on his elbows, looking intensely into my eyes. "And I'm glad I did." He reached up and touched my face, then slid his hand behind my head, intertwining his fingers in my hair. "The were-panther was right," he whispered. "I do like you." And then he drew me closer to him and kissed me on the lips.

It was a lovely kiss. His lips moved against mine with a gentle strength, and I found kissing him back to be one of the easiest and most enjoyable experiences of my life. When I finally drew back from him, smiling and blushing like an over-romantic English major, I told him, "Luke Pierce, I think I like you, too. You taste like a hero" He grinned at me, winked--then promptly fell asleep on the couch.

I sat back with a sigh--then jumped to my feet with a startled scream as my family burst in the damaged cabin door--which caused it to fall to the ground with a crash. It took a good deal of explaining to get my parents and brother to believe that I had just assisted a dashing intruder in the slaying of a were-panther. After pointing out the blood and black cat hair stuck on the glass of the broken window and showing them the shiny gray dust on the floor and the handsome wounded guy sleeping on the couch, I managed to have them somewhat convinced.

For a moment, we all stood staring at Luke, then my brother asked, "Well where do I sleep?"

As he and my dad discussed the best possible location for his sleeping bag, my mom sidled up to me with the hints of a smile on her face. "Lilly," she whispered, standing close to me and taking my arm.

"Yes, Mom?"

She led me closer to the couch where Luke was sleeping. "Look at him."

"I have, Mom," I told her with a blush. Darn those blushes! "I'm a woman, aren't I? I've looked at him a lot…" I almost added hysterically, "And kissed him some, too," but managed to stop myself.

Mom studied the sleeping hero quietly for a few seconds, then looked back at me with a smile of wonder. "Lilly… He looks like Robert Redford."

I had to laugh.