Her scent reached him before he saw her. She was walking along the road laden with designer shopping bags, her laptop case slung carelessly across one shoulder - a slim, supple woman with perfectly bobbed fair hair. She seemed tall, slender, yet perfectly proportioned as she walked, no-flowed- around the corner towards the sunlit spot where he leant against the pillar, watching the world go by with his large, golden eyes.
He never knew what made him step forward and offer to help carry her bags. He'd never done anything like that before, but something about her forced him to say those four words. Four words which changed his life forever.
"Can I help you?"
She stopped. Her gaze didn't exactly bore holes in him, but he knew she was examining every tiny morsel of his being –from the tip of his dark, auburn hair to the perfectly polished toes of his black leather shoes. His trousers were leather too, as was his jacket, worn carelessly over his perfectly laundered white cotton shirt.
He knew women were attracted to him. Why else would he have won the modelling contract with a top London fashion house when he was only seventeen? Even now, at the tender age of twenty two, when he juggled being in front of the camera with taking his own photo shoots and videos, he could hardly walk along crowded London streets without some woman or another fawning over him, offering him food, drink or themselves.
This was why he came to be lounging against a pillar on a Regency Street in a provincial Town where nobody knew him. The latest digital camera hung around his neck. He was taking abstract shots of the stone mullions on the houses, trying to catch the shapes where honey-coloured stone cast long shadows against the glass in the afternoon sun. Her scent made him stop and search for her presence. Now she was standing in front of him, as if her decision was made.
"Name," she said in a tone which brooked no dissention.
"Keel," he stammered, "Jonathan Keel."
Her eyes flickered as if expecting him to say more, but there was no more to say. He was adopted. His foster parents told him he was left on their doorstep one winter's night, only a few weeks old, together with a note asking that he be taken in and cared for until he was old enough to make his own way in the world. They were a childless couple in their early forties, isolated in their ways and their location, farming a smallholding up in the Lake District.
They didn't hold much with the authorities – not since all their stock was culled during the foot and mouth epidemic – so they took him in and brought him up as their own. Until, that is, he started to grow and change. Everyone was glad when he moved to London. It meant there were no more questions. Questions for which there were no answers.
"Take these," she said, holding a group of bags in his direction.
He took them from her. She didn't wait to see if he would follow, she merely turned and walked on as if knowing he would be at her shoulder if she bothered to turn and look.
She led him down several side streets until the pavement turned to cobbles under their feet. A large silver car was parked in front of one of a wooden gateway. As they approached, a man leaped out from the driving seat and came towards them. He was wearing a dark suit and sunglasses, although the street was shaded now. His hair was cut short and starting to turn grey above his ears, but he was stockily built and his manner was one who brooked no dissention.
"My Lady," he said, taking the rest of her bags from her and opening the back car door in one, fluid motion.
"We have a stray, Clay. His name is Keel and I'm taking him home." She slid elegantly into the back seat of the car and he closed the door after her. Clay opened the boot and placed the packages carefully inside, motioning the lad to do likewise with the ones he was holding.
"Get in the front. The Lady says you are coming home."
Keel opened his mouth, then shut it again. There seemed no point in arguing or trying to run. As he shut the car door and buckled the seat belt in around him, he realised he didn't want to run. Whoever these people were, he wanted to know more about them.
It was a lengthy journey. The sun long gone by the time they reached the place called home. The lady spent the time working on her laptop or making terse phone calls on her mobile. He could not hear much of the conversations, but he heard the word "stray" several times. She seemed to be giving instructions for their arrival. Keel did not feel they concerned him in any way, so he leaned against the soft leather seat and fell asleep. He dreamed of cats.
When they reached their destination, a hot meal was served to them.
"You must be tired, Keel" Lady Eleuthemia said as the plates were being cleared away. "Go to your room now and sleep. We shall discuss your position in the morning."
Keel found himself stammering his thanks for her hospitality. Part of him wanted to ask her why she was kidnapping him, but another part did not dare to risk her ire in case she told him to leave now, without finding out anything about who she was and what she wanted with him.
Saunh, the Lady's partner, took him to his room and wished him a good night's sleep. The room was small with ensuite facilities tucked behind the wardrobe, with a single bed beneath the large window. Keel was surprised to see bars across the glass, but he presumed such a large house had a problem with intruders. Keel went to leave his camera on the dressing table and his companion asked him about his interest in photographs and what his line of business might be. Keel did not like to say too much about his profession, but he mentioned the modelling and some of his video projects.
Saunh, nodded, "I thought I recognised you from posters in Melingham, some months ago."
Keel was surprised to find he was very sleepy and soon found himself under the covers. It was well he did, rather than try to leave his room, for Saunh locked his door behind him.
In the morning, Keel was woken by Saunh and brought to a small living room off the main entrance hall.
Lady Eleuthemia was sitting on an elegant chair flanked on either side by two men. Keel recognised Clay and Saunh and the other two were introduced as Nuin, who specialised in ancient history and Gahd, who was in charge of the kitchens.
"They are all my housemales," Lady Eleuthemia explained, although Keel did not understand the term she used. "You are standing before my House Council. We must decide what to do with you."
"Do with me?" Keel was confused. "It was very kind of you to invite me to stay with you, Lady Eleuthemia, but I really don't need your help. I have a job I love with good prospects. I own my own home in Woking. I've never asked anyone for help since I left the Lakes."
"Better not to speak unless my Lady asks you, Keel," Saunh advised. Keel opened his mouth, then shut it again. It unnerved him to be standing in the middle of the room when everyone else was seated. He wondered if he had done something wrong the previous night, had offended someone. It seemed such a strange thing to do to a guest.
"We are People, Keel," Lady Eleuthemia continued as if no-one had spoken. "So are you. It is not permitted for a stray male to be allowed to live on his own without a contract. I take it you are not contracted?"
"I have a contract with my photographic agency and with the firm I'm making the next video for."
"No," Lady Eleuthemia shook her head, "you don't understand the law. Why should you? You've never been taught. It's a wonder you've done as well as you have, given the circumstances. I'm surprised you've not been in trouble with the apekin police. Have you not been arrested for hunting yet?"
"Hunting?" Keel was shocked. How did she know about the hunting. What else did she know?
"You do hunt every moon?"
He could only nod, his face ashen.
"It's all right, Keel, we understand." Saunh was trying to reassure him. "We all have to hunt when the moon is bright. It's part of being one of the People. Only apekin have one form and do not feel the effects of the moon. We are much older than their race."
"You all change?" Keel stammered.
"Of course. Changing to our older form when the moon is full is one of the first signs of a kit's adolescence. You must be almost fully mature by now."
"I'm twenty- two. The changing started when I was sixteen. I managed to hide it for a few months, but my foster parents were very glad when I left home, I think. I wasn't their son any more, I was almost a monster in their midst."
Lady Eleuthemia nodded sympathetically. "That's often the way with apekin when they don't understand. Now," she said briskly, "what are we going to do with you?"
"Do with me?"
"You cannot continue to live on your own amongst the apekin, it's too dangerous. I am happy for you to live here with us and my housemales are in agreement. You will continue with your employment and any money you earn will go into the house accounts."
Keel began to protest, but Lady Eleuthemia dismissed them.
"Males are not allowed to manage their own money, it belongs to their alpha. You are not under formal contract to the House of Rohke, but if things go well you will be issued with a training contract. This will allow you to live here and continue with your work, but also be trained in the ways of the People. When you are deemed sufficiently mature, you will be placed for a house contract with a suitable alpha.
"I have no idea yet whether you will be eligible for breeding status. Saunh tells me you are fertile, so you will begin immediately on liquid galth to remove this problem. You will come to me every day for your dose and if I am not at home you will receive it from my mother, the Elder Mirelda."
"Surely my fertility is my own business," Keel protested. "I should choose what to do with my own body." He saw the other men in the room wince.
Lady Eleuthemia's voice was very soft and quiet, but her words chilled his soul. "You would rather I ripped out your testicles with my teeth to ensure your infertility?"
Keel shook his head vigorously, realising she meant every word.
"Good. Give Clay your address and he will go and fetch your belongings. Saunh will go with you to your work, until we can trust you as one of us. Nuin will instruct you in the lore of the People and I will be responsible for your training. Your position will be reviewed in a year and a day to discuss your progress."
Keel bowed his head. Things were happening so fast. It seemed too good to be true there were others like him in the world. All his life he had wondered who he was and where he came from. Now he had a chance to find out. This amazing woman was offering him a home with his own people.
"You have my thanks, my Lady," he stammered.
Lady Eleuthemia smiled. "Welcome to the House of Rohke, Keel"
During the next few days, Keel became part of the household. His belongings were moved into a large room on the third floor, looking out over fields as far as the eye could see. Those large items of furniture which could not be accommodated were placed in storage above the old stable block.
Keel's bank accounts were closed and the money transferred to Eleuthemia. His flat was put up for sale and only his employers were given his new address. It all happened so fast, Keel's head was whirling. He wondered if he should go to the police, tell them he had been abducted by a cult which was trying to indoctrinate him. He thought about trying to escape, but deep in his heart, he knew he belonged.
He was well fed and everyone, except Nuin, welcomed him into the household. He was given tasks to undertake and thanked for his contribution
Each day he knocked on the door of Eleuthemia's private study to receive his dose of galth. At first, the sticky green liquid made him feel sick and lightheaded making it difficult to concentrate when he was at work. He was not allowed to travel to the photographic studio on his own. Sometimes Saunh went with him but when he was busy, Clay would drive him to the shoot and wait at the back of the studio until he was finished.
Both men had the ability to blend into the background, surprising Keel by appearing at his elbow when it was time to return home. They seemed genuinely interested in his work, asking for his thoughts and offering their own comments about how the day's shoot had gone. Clay was surprised by the number of women who found excuses to spend time with Keel.
"Doesn't it bother you having apekin pawing you like that?" he asked one evening when they were driving home.
"It's always been the same," Keel told him. "I don't do anything to encourage them, but they all seem to want to tear my clothes off and ravage me senseless for some reason. It used to be really tiring trying to keep them all happy until I moved in with you. It's a great relief having my body to myself now."
He wondered why Clay gave him a strange glance, but the older man said nothing, turning his conversation to cars and the trip Eleuthemia was planning in the near future.
Some days later, Keel was called to Eleuthemia's study
"Now, Keel. I am pleased with your attitude and your commitment to my family. Both Saunh and Clay have brought me excellent reports from your dalliance amongst the apekin. I have decided to offer you a training contract to give you a formal footing amongst my housemales."
Keel was stunned. He did not understand exactly what her words meant, but he gathered enough to believe she was offering him the chance to join her housemales. To become part of her household. To belong to a family, a family of his own People.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
"You will be branded to the House of Rohke, not a full brand because there may come a time when you are chosen by another alpha, but it will allow you to move freely amongst the People without question." She raised her hand and he saw she was holding a collar of some sort, made of large leather rings, carefully tooled.
Keel felt a hand on each of his arms pushing him forward and downwards until he found himself kneeling in front of the alpha, his alpha.
Eleuthemia smiled. "It is a long time since I trained a young male," she glanced upwards, "isn't it Saunh." The dark man hissed, his eyes black with remembrance. "I think I shall enjoy it."
She placed the collar carefully around Keel's neck, fastening it with a decisive snap.
"Report to the training room in four days time for your first session."
"Yes, Lady, thank you, Lady." Keel bowed his head, wishing he could think of something more eloquent to say. When he looked up, she was gone. He caught sight of her slender figure making her way up the main staircase accompanied by a very large black cat who was lashing his tail from side to side.
Three days later, Keel presented himself in Eleuthemia's study. She was sitting at her desk wearing a simple white coverall, a long zip fastener closed just below her throat gland in the centre of her neck. She waved him in, pointing to the rug beside her feet.
Keel wondered why he did not even think of sitting on a chair, but instead sank gracefully to his knees beside her. Her hand reached out to stroke his hair and gently cup his face.
"You have never sought training from anyone else?" she asked him.
"No, Lady. I did not know there was anyone to ask to train me."
She led him down the hallway to the training room. As she opened the door, light flooded the room reflecting from the stark whiteness of the interior. The walls and floor were padded in white cushions. There was no window to the outside, but ceiling mounted cameras hung in all four corners of the room, red lights showing they were recording everything which happened in this room.
Keel looked around, squinting slightly against the glare, his attention on the alpha beside him.
"Remove all your clothes," she ordered. "Males are not allowed clothing in this room."
If there was one thing Keel learned during his weeks in this household it was to comply swiftly with her instructions. He always found himself halfway to obeying before his mind has had a chance to register what it was she said.
He stripped off the shirt and loose trousers he was wearing. His feet were already bare as no-one wore shoes within the house. He stood, expectant, blinking in the bright light.
Eleuthemia smiled encouragingly as she walked around critically surveying his body.
"You've put on some muscle since you joined us, Keel."
One part of him felt he should relax, as she was smiling, but he always felt apprehensive and excited when she inspected him.
"Yes, my Lady. I have been well cared for."
"How many times have you hunted with the house pack?"
"Four times now, but I have been running when I can - around the grounds."
"You have been wrestling with Sophie's collared one?"
"Shade? Yes. He is too skilful for me, even though I am heavier than he is. He throws me every time but I am getting better. He says my grip is stronger now."
"When you hunt, do you have any kills to your name?"
"I have been unsuccessful so far, but I am improving. There is so much to learn."
"How do you like raw meat?"
Keel flushed with embarrassment. Her question made him realise how much he had changed since his arrival. For a whole week after his first hunt he was offered nothing but raw meat and water. He thought he would die of hunger until he forced himself to take the first mouthful.
"I did not want to taste it on the first kill," he stammered, his voice almost a whisper. "I refused. Once it was explained to me why it was good for my body, I tried it and now, now I crave it. I cannot recall when I last ate fruit."
He felt her hands stroke his shoulders, a feather touch, making him shiver; gooseflesh rippling across his skin, making his nipples erect. Her fingers lightly traced the scars where Sierra, one of the young females of Keel's age had raked him with her claws when they were fooling around with each other one evening.
"You are very fortunate, you know," she murmured, her voice very close to his ear, "Not many males your age can boast scarring by a young alpha as deeply as this."
Keel swallowed nervously, not knowing how to respond.
"How did you feel when she opened you?"
"I felt a flash of pain, but it was followed by a swelling deep inside me, in my chest, and spreading down. I felt pride and very thankful." He licked his lips, daring to look at her. "I would never have expected to feel like that."
"And when she licked your blood, fed from you. How did that feel?"
His gaze dropped for a moment. "I felt lightheaded, honoured. I wanted that moment never to end."
He saw her nod and knew she understood him completely.
"You are young and heal fast. These scars will soon be nothing. Would you wish them to fade?"
Keel shook his head." Nothing lasts for ever but while the scars remain, I will wear them with pride. Afterwards, I will know their shape and size, here." He touched his hand once to his temple and once to his heart. "Lady?"
He waited for her permission to continue speaking. "There was another thing I felt but I do not wish to overstep myself. It may be unseemly for me to mention this feeling."
"You must tell me everything, little one, no matter how trivial. If I ever discover you have kept something from me and I find out another way, you will be punished." He voice was calm without any hint of threat, but his heart raced. If he failed to comply with her rules, he would be punished. He dared not consider how great this punishment might be. He did not feel strong enough to cross her and find out.
Once more he licked dry lips. "When Sierra opened me, I felt- after the pain subsided -. very aroused. But she is young and that was wrong. I do not know why the hurt should make me feel like that. Later, when she fed, I .. I wished...I wished it were you who were feeding from me."