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The Panther's Rival by Emilia Hartley (1)

And just like that, his life had changed. He shook the man’s hand hard, firm, an agreement made between men. It meant something to Merk. Always had. A handshake. It was important. For one, it signified that they weren’t animals, that they were human beings, sentient, thinkers, creatures with a consciousness and a mind to at least try to become more than what they were the day before or the days before – weeks, months, years even. Again, that meant something to Merk, given where he had come from in his life and the things that he had seen and done. Merk needed a fresh start and he was getting it from this school and the opportunity that Principal Lightwood was giving him in making him the head coach of the football team.

“We’re definitely looking forward to seeing what you are going to do with our team. They are a great bunch of kids – very talented!” the principal beamed with joy and hopefulness. “And you…”

Merk never liked to hear stuff about himself, praises and adulations just weren’t his thing. Most people wanted them, maybe even needed flattery and word grifts to make them feel accomplished in the world, but he didn’t. He was a realist. Merk enjoyed the visceral nature of life, the fact that life was what it was and all a person had to do was to see it for what it was: moments in time where things happen and humans then determine, based off their feelings and wants, attachments and detachments, what those moments meant to them. It was purely humanistic. Other animals didn’t mete out their lives in that manner. Merk knew this intrinsically as a fact.

Principal Lightwood continued: “You’re just something special. I can tell. We are lucky to get you down here in this lil’ backwater town.”

Lucky. Yea, right. That was it.

“Why’d you leave your other school again?” queried the principal.

Merk hesitated. He didn’t want to answer. It was a long story and a past that he was desperately trying to leave behind him. 

“Needed a fresh start,” answered Merk.

The answer seemed to satisfy the principal. He nodded.

“Good – Good. Good for us. I called your former school and they were devastated that you just suddenly decided to leave. They sung your praises – all good things about you. You were a well-respected and loved coach there.”

Merk forced a smile. It was hard to hear good things about himself. Mostly because he knew the truth, he lived with himself every day. He knew what he was inside. The animal. Literally. Merk was a shifter, specifically a Panther Shifter. The panther, the animal, lived inside of him and whether or not he shifted, the two – human and panther – were always the same, one being, no separation. Even now, talking to Principal Lightwood, he could feel it, the panther, the animal creature outside of his humanity in him, always wanting to rise up, to manifest itself. That was one of the reasons why he was here in this small Florida town, a backwater hub almost completely off the grid. All Merk wanted was normalcy, for once in his life.

Principal Lightwood stood to his feet. They shook hands again. The meeting was ending. They exchanged last second pleasantries and then Merk made his way to the door. He left feeling accomplished and completely ready to begin his new life.

The school wasn’t huge. Student population was maybe a little over eight hundred and the building itself was decent in size. Merk decided to take in some of the school, some of its scenery and atmosphere. He was slightly anxious. He had coached before, had been a football coach in some capacity for years, but this was different. This was him starting over. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit to himself that it was out of desperation. What had happened… It had all just been too much and he was tired of that kind of life. No. He was going to put all of that behind him once and for all and start fresh. This school was going to do that for him. Distance was good. And he now had plenty of that.

Merk looked at his watch. Close to three. School would be letting out. He wanted to make it to the practice field before the team, just to get a look at them under the assistant coach. He had seen tapes but nothing in person. The last coach, who abruptly just quit the job and left town at the end of last year, had had some pretty good talent to work with.  Merk wondered why he suddenly just quit. He had been building something for a solid two years and it seemed like this year would have been the year that some of his hard work and patience would have paid off. He couldn’t have been under the same duress as him, not as a shifter. The kids really didn’t look bad, not at all. Merk felt like he had inherited something special.

As Merk walked down the hall, life seemed right. Perfect for once. He felt like he was going towards something good – and then she stepped out in front of him. Sleek. Attractive. Even from that distance he could see her beauty. Dark hair that held a hint of brown, mixed with bounciness and subtle bangs. Her appearance in the hallway, a good distance away from him, was very noticeable. Especially her figure which was outlined from the side in a silhouette-like frame; she was very, very curvy. Was she a teacher? No way. But she had to be. She had just stepped out of a classroom and she seemed familiar with the place, comfortable. She stood back from her door and tilted her head back to look up at the wall. Merk followed her line of sight. Hmph. A clock. He continued in her direction.

The woman made a kind of whine and then started back in the classroom. He didn’t want her to leave his sight. Unexplainably, Merk felt drawn to her, like some kind of otherworldly energy was pulling him towards her. He didn’t want to lose her; if she left his sight, he felt that she would be gone for good. Forever. Suddenly, his thoughts felt cloudy and jumbled. He didn’t know what it was – something, a feeling – that compelled him to approach her. Merk hurried down the hall to catch up with her before she went into her classroom.

“Hey…” he heard himself say, it was like he had stepped outside of himself for a second. Weird.

The woman turned to look at him. He could only image how awkward it must have been for her to see a total stranger running down the hallway, waving her down, gesturing for her to hold on and calling for her to do the same. Merk stopped in front of her, his breathing a light pant. She was even more attractive than he thought: she had an almost round face, there was something about the shape that seemed more elongated than round, more oval that spherical; the woman’s eyes were sparkly specs of light. That light flickered from her big brown eyes. Such a pretty face. Full sensuous lips. And then she smiled.

“May I help you?”

Merk stood next to her. She smelled as good as she looked. He chuckled to himself. Panther’s didn’t have the best sense of smell, nothing extraordinary, but it was still greater than that of a human being. So his panther nose gave him an extra-ability to smell slightly over a regular human, to pick up scents; as her scent filled his nostrils, the vanilla-lavender redolence, the trace of its deliciousness pervaded his mouth and nose; it was like he could taste her, but not just her scent but her aura and identity, the essence that made her who she was. Pleasant. Calming. Soothing. Parasympathetic to the mind, body, and soul; Merk was mystified by the woman in front of him and he didn’t know the reason.

“No – Yeah – No… I uh…” the words were caught in his mouth somewhere. “The clock in your room isn’t working?”

He had stuttered and fumbled until he found the right words. Never had he been so absent-minded or dumbstruck when it came to speech. On the contrary, he had been told the exact opposite. But the garbled mess that he just spoke only added to the how strangely lured he felt towards her.

“Uh. I know… And I’ve been emailing about it the entire work week,” she answered.

Their eyes caught. He could easily have left it alone right there. But Merk couldn’t. He didn’t want to. There was something about her… He felt compelled to say more, to offer more.

“Let me take a look,” he said.

The woman smiled. Without actually answering, she walked into her classroom. Did she just expect him to follow? Pretty presumptuous. Maybe not. He had offered. But there was something in her gait that told him otherwise, like it was something that she felt he was supposed to do. He followed her in, his eyes dropping to her wide hips then scaling down to her butt. Merk grinned slightly. She had a nice ass. She turned, pointed to the clock on the wall, and glanced over her shoulder at him. Damn. She had caught him looking at her ass. Merk tried to look away, a natural instinct of retreat, but it was already too late. However, she had the decency not to mention it, very kind of her. But he got the sense that she hadn’t minded him looking – ogling really – that was a part of the allure, that she was very much aware of what was happening.

“Right,” Merk said as he found the closest chair to him and scooted it against the wall.

Merk was tall. Well over six foot. And he was of a lengthy, stocky build. All his life he had been burly, a real man, and he was into building and fixing things, all of it came easy to him because of his physique and just the way his mind seemed to be geared. He grabbed the clock from off the wall and brought it down to look at. He stepped off the chair. The woman was close. Very close. Directly on him as he had stepped off the chair. They stood almost pressed to each other, face to face, unplanned, just the way he stepped down seemed to have put them together. Their eyes met. Locked. Her vanilla-lavender scent was obvious and robust, dancing around his nose seductively. Merk didn’t want to fight what he was feeling – it was as if kismet was in the making. He dared to think of venturing into it some more, but the feeling and connection with her was crowding him, filling him.

“I – I didn’t get your name…” he said, his voice distant even to himself.

“I didn’t give it… Yet,” she answered, her voice was prickly with intrigue.

They continued to look at each other. She had some strong juju coming from her. A forceful pulling, an intense allure that he couldn’t break from.

“Kara,” she said. “Kara Daniels. And you?”

Merk paused, a sly smile appearing on his face: “I didn’t give you mine yet either.”

He then turned away from her and began working on the clock. They were at play. He heard her sigh and then let off a snicker. She was entertained. Even though he had just met Kara, Merk felt a jolt of electricity from teasing her. Still feeling the rush, he turned back around to face her once he had fixed her clock.

“Done?” she asked, her eyebrows furrowed, her question more about him than the clock he suspected.

“Done,” he said.

He climbed back onto the chair to put the clock back on the wall.

“Well, I would say thank you but I don’t know who I would be thanking…”

It was Merk’s turn to snicker. He hung the clock back on the wall and stepped back down from the chair. Again, they were close.

“Are you the new janitor – I’m sorry – custodial help?”

Merk laughed out loud.   

“What’s so funny?” she asked, it was her turn to tease him.

“It’s just that…” his voice trailed off.

Merk found himself lost for words and adrift in her eyes again. He was a non-syllabic mess. And then there was that pulling again. It was an insatiable lure. He drew closer to her.

“What? I mean is, that you’re quite handy…” she continued, drawing closer to him.

“I can be,” he answered.

Merk could tell that she was enjoying it as much as he was. Their flirting had become obvious. She made a slight movement that looked like she was about to reach out and touch him, like a playful brush against his chest or arm, but she caught herself. Instead, she scooted back, taking a couple of steps, and eased back on her desk, her hand pushing some graded papers to the side; her eyes never left his, piercing and full, the light bandied around inside of them giving her a shimmer of luminescence.             

“So… Who are you?” she asked.

“Merk. Merk Castle. I’m the new football coach,” he said confidently.

“Oh.”

That was her response. Merk didn’t get much from it. He wanted her to be impressed. But he couldn’t tell if she was or not. It bothered him at first, but then looking at her and how amazing she looked (and he meant that in the most holistic way possible; everything about her, physical and more) that feeling didn’t stay long. Kara was special. That much he could tell already.

“Hope you check out some of the games… Do you usually go?” asked Merk, hoping to spark some interest in her in an attempt to engage her in some way.

“I definitely will,” she answered back. “I want to see what you will do with the team – football’s a pretty big thing around here so… Yea.”

She slid off the edge of the desk. Her movements got to him. There was a graceful quality about her as if she floated at times, a sleek and silky element that made each motion fluid, even her gait. Kara moved towards the back of the room, turning completely away from him and not looking back. Merk needed to be closer to her. He had been feeling that way since he saw her. He took the necessary steps and rounded the desk to follow behind her. But Kara moved further away from him, steadily gliding across the room. He couldn’t believe how he was acting – he literally was following her around like some lost puppy that had found the master it wanted to go home with.

Kara was now in the back of the room, paying him no mind; it was as if he was no longer in the room. But he knew better than that. Did she really want him to chase her like this? And why was he so drawn to her? Why was he so willing to follow her around her room? Kara busied herself with something over in the corner. Merk was crossing the classroom, moving halfway over to her, when he caught himself. Seriously. What was he doing? A relationship wasn’t what he was there for – he needed a job yes, to start over, but a relationship, given who he was, always became problematic and always brought in its own way, discord and then more problems. He needed to cut his losses right now, end whatever this was that he was going after with Kara, and hurry out the door that he had come through.

“Well… I’m gonna go –” Merk started, turning back around to head for the door, his mind decided. “I hope to see you at the first game.”

Cut your losses before it even starts, he thought.

“Huh –? Wait,” she called out to him, her voice sounded higher, shock, an interest piqued to the point where she was willing and possibly ready to explore, even in a chance first meeting.

Merk stopped. So many things ran through his mind in a matter of moments, seconds. Merk forced himself to remember where he had come from, the town and the people, the past that he had left behind. He had moved on. And he didn’t want to come to a new town and complicate things. He instinctively suspected Kara would lead to complications. Most dating experiences and relationships did just that. Her being a human and all, but then add a Panther Shifter, whoa, that’s a real hallmark set of problems. Merk knew for sure that he needed to take whatever it was that she was about to say and respond in the most respectful way, all the while ending any possible furthering of thoughts about hooking up with this gorgeous woman or whatever it was that was about to come from the song and dance that they were obviously doing. But to do that would take effort and a mass of resistance, both of which he wasn’t sure he had, not withstanding, her beauty and the insane attraction he felt. Merk turned back around. There was a good amount of distance between them but from that distance, he could see her perfectly, clearly, a portrait of her. She was like a woman stranded on an island, an ocean between them, a chasm that he had to cross. Again, he felt compelled. It felt like providence or destiny if you believed in such a thing. Merk went over to her. She seemed to have been waiting for him. Her face and demeanor so different from the voice he had just heard calling out to him. She looked more confident than she had sounded. He thought that he had turned the tables on her by abruptly walking away, attempting to leave, but suddenly it all felt like part of her game, a ruse that only drew him back to her, this time entangling him in her web with surety. Merk didn’t mind it though. He willingly went to her.

“Look… I know we just met and all but…” Merk stopped, the words got caught in his throat, this was becoming a recurring problem when talking to her.

She waited. She was patient. He could tell that she wanted him to ask her out.

“Would you like to grab some coffee or something?” he pushed the query out of himself.

Kara smiled. It was a devilish grin. Sexy. Luring. She had him. He was in her web.

“How about dinner instead…? Tomorrow night. Are you free?” she asked.

Merk was taken aback by her forwardness. Coffee seemed safer. But looking at her, he understood more so than when he had first seen her in the hallway that Kara wasn’t safe. And he liked that about her. It made her even more alluring. However, he no longer knew if it was him asking her out or if she was asking him. Didn’t matter.

“It’s a date,” he said with finality.

“It is,” she agreed.

Merk backed away and spun slightly on his heels, moving towards the doorway to leave. As he got closer, he shot back at her, “You wanna meet here at the school and then go –? I assume you know all the best places around here.”

“That sounds perfect – You don’t know if I’m a stalker or not yet, you can never be too safe,” she answered slyly and with a devilish snicker.

Merk laughed out loud going through the door. He felt accomplished. A job and a date all in one day.