Chapter I. Animal Attraction
Destiny Bettencourt hurriedly wheeled her shopping cart down Ralphs' pet food aisle, her intense, emerald green eyes darting about the neatly arranged shelves.
"I don't suppose they carry Ferret Chow," she muttered to herself as she pointed her cart toward the checkout line. Now she'd have to stop at the pet store, yet another errand to cram into her already frantic day. But better that, she thought, than facing her beloved yet finicky ferret Suzy with a box of Friskies again.
She mentally rearranged her schedule as she flew down Melrose in her shiny, midnight blue Ford Explorer, her long, tapered fingers impatiently tapping the steering wheel. If traffic wasn't backed up, she'd be able to make it on time to meet her friends Michele and Sarah. Their weekly girls-only get-togethers had been a routine since college, and being late was a cardinal sin.
She steered the Explorer into the last parking space at Java Universe, the gourmet coffee house that had begun springing up in almost every neighborhood in the country. Its only competition was Cuppa Joe's, and so fierce was their rivalry that people were known to have shouting matches over which was better.
Destiny's allegiance was to Java Universe--and for good reason. She was the assistant to the founder, the cunning Sir Oliver Sneddley, an expatriate Brit and former Olympic equestrian intent on world coffee domination--and squashing Cuppa Joe's like a bug.
Racing through the parking lot, her ample breasts heaving with every breath, she flung open the door and searched for her friends. Destiny was, as usual, completely oblivious to the fact that every head turned when she entered the shop.
It wasn't just her breathtaking, almost flawless beauty, which alone was astonishing. Long, cinnamon-colored hair fell in silky waves around her heart-shaped face. Preternaturally rosy cheeks, a pert nose and full, crimson lips gave her a look that was at once innocent and wildly sensual. Yet Destiny also possessed an intangible but boundless joie de vivre that was impossible to ignore and ultimately contagious.
"One minute, 45 seconds late!" Sarah chided as Destiny eased her trim yet curvaceous body into a chair. A floral minidress showed off shapely, muscular legs that owed their incredible tone to good genes and a steady date with the StairMaster. A delicate antique silver locket hung around her graceful, swan-like neck.
"Sorry, but my power yoga class ran long, then Ralphs didn't have any ferret food. . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, we've heard it all before," said Michele with a sly grin. "Des, you're always late. You need to scale back a little!"
"Hmmm. If only I could. But I have that bar mitzvah this weekend, then dinner at Rix with a client, then I have to get ready for my trip to Athens and. . . ."
"You're going to Athens?!" the friends exclaimed in unison.
"Athens, Georgia," Destiny replied, making a sour face. "Last month it was Rome . . . New York. All I want to do is see Europe before I die, but it seems whoever is in control of my fate has a lousy sense of humor."
"Certainly it's not Sir Sneddley," Sarah said, a bit of tease in her voice. "He's so smitten he'd buy Europe for you if you asked."
"Oh, please, you know I don't want that kind of relationship. I mean, I love my job, but I want to get ahead on my own merits. And Sir Oliver's hardly my idea of Mr. Right. Besides, I heard he bought his title."
"You could do worse," Michele said, wagging a finger.
"And I could do better! Look at you two--married to wonderful men, you have beautiful children, grand houses. . . . Sometimes I think I'd give it all up in a minute for that kind of life."
"Honey, you'll meet Mr. Right," Sarah said, giving Destiny's arm a squeeze. "Hey, why don't you try one of those dating serv--"
Destiny stared at her friend in horror, her eyes widening, brimming with tears.
"Uh, Des, why don't you get some coffee?" Michele suddenly interjected while giving Sarah a swift kick under the table. "It's probably been at least a half-hour since your last cup."
"Oh--OK," Destiny replied, pulling out of her shock and gently dabbing at her eyes.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Michele fixed her gaze on Sarah.
"How could you say that? After what she's been through!"
"I--I'm sorry," Sarah replied. "I just forgot. It's been so long."
"Well don't bring it up again," Michele warned sternly. "She's likely to go off the deep end."
Destiny soon reappeared with a steaming cup of low-fat, half-caff mocha latte. Whatever funk she had passed into had apparently disappeared like a meadow mist at daybreak, and her green eyes were once again dry and sparkling.
"Have you tried our new sugar-free, nonfat muffins?" she asked as she plopped a few on the table and watched them bounce repeatedly.
"Um, no, but we're really full right now," Michele said, warily eyeing the still-jiggling muffins. "So anyway, tell us about your upcoming trip. It sounds so glamorous!"
The women talked nonstop for nearly two hours, until Sarah's cell phone interrupted the conversation.
"I'll bet it's Robert," she said as she put the phone to her ear. "He's watching the kids today."
After a few "uh-huhs" she clicked off the phone. "Well, unfortunately, this week's meeting of the once-and-former bachelorettes has to come to a halt. Elsa's fever is up again."
"I hope she's OK," Destiny said. "Please tell her Auntie Destiny sends her love."
"I will," Sarah said, as the three hugged and made plans for the following week.
Heading down La Cienega, Destiny reached for her to-do list and focused on "Suzy food."
"I think I'll try that pet store that just opened," she said to herself. "I hope I still have the coupon."
She grabbed a parking spot on the street and dropped nine quarters into the meter.
Entering the store, she saw only blackness until her eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight. Gradually, she began to see that the place was small, but tidy and well-stocked. Something moved on the floor near the cash register; it was a beautiful golden retriever, twitching in a contented sleep. Destiny walked over to him, crouched down and patted his head.
"Well, hello there, you handsome thing! What's your name?"
"It's Jasper," came a bold, male voice from behind her. "And mine's Hunter."
Startled, she whirled around to see the silhouette of a man leaning against a display of 20-pound sacks of dog food. On closer inspection, he was about 6 feet tall, with dark brown, almost black hair that fell lazily across his forehead. Destiny noticed quickly that his worn jeans and burgundy plaid flannel shirt did little to hide Hunter's lanky yet muscular frame as her eyes roamed his landscape.
"He-hello," she stammered, gazing into his deep-set azure eyes, the forest meeting the ocean.
"Hi." He offered his hand to help her up, and Destiny took it, noticing that it was calloused, but warm and reassuring.
"And you are . . . ?
"Looking for some food for my--ah--small, furry animal that kind of eats sort of what cats eat," Destiny replied, suddenly feeling a flush creep into her face.
"Hmm." Hunter's thick eyebrows formed peaks of puzzlement. "A small, furry animal that kind of eats what cats eat? You wouldn't be talking about a . . . ferret, would you?"
"Well, yes, I guess I am," Destiny said, embarrassed, staring at the floor.
"You know those are illegal in California. I should turn you in."
But his voice was merry and thick with irony. Although ferrets were outlawed, there was something about this woman that was keeping him from actually contacting Animal Control.
"But I guess I won't--this time." A wide grin stretched across his sturdy features. "And I think I might have what you're looking for."
Destiny watched as Hunter walked to the back of the store.
He reappeared carrying a bag of kibble, and set it on the counter.
"I think this will do the trick. That'll be $15.95."
"Thank you so much," Destiny said with obvious relief, and reached for her wallet. "Oh gosh! I forgot to stop at the ATM! Do you take Discover?"
"Sure," Hunter answered. "Now, may I ask you something?"
* Meanwhile, somewhere in Chapter II:
In those quick three seconds, Destiny slipped far, far away from here--her imagination wild, vivid, on fire as she found herself inside Hunter's arms, his brawny roller-coaster biceps squeezing her closer into his manhood.
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