"Where ya goin', Elsie? To a funeral?" Bert cracked up at his own joke. He pointed his beer-laden fist at her, drawing his cronies' attention to the formal black outfit she'd chosen for the party. They snickered at her obvious discomfort. She hated it when he called her Elsie. Made her sound like a cow or something.
Turning her back on her ex, Ellen headed for the bar. Okay, maybe she looked slightly ridiculous, or at least out of place, in her velvet gown and rhinestone earrings, but it was New Year's Eve, for heaven sakes. Everyone else in Alicia's vast Soho loft wore jeans. So what? She'd always loved dressing up, and what better occasion than tonight?
Too bad that everyone she knew was Bert's friend, too. She'd broken up with Bert more than six months ago, but she was still forced to see him constantly, if she wanted any social life at all. She needed to meet some new people. That was rough, though, with her sixty-hour-a-week work schedule. She picked up an open bottle of champagne and poured herself another glass. Staring at bubbles rising through the golden liquid, she wondered how to get out of her social rut.
"Mind if I have some?" An unfamiliar male voice cut into her reverie. Ellen looked up to find a stranger holding out his goblet. He had pale skin, jet black hair, plump lips as red as strawberries, and the most gorgeous tuxedo Ellen had ever seen - inky dark satin that gleamed in the dim light, a snowy expanse of ruffled shirt, and a scarlet cummerbund. It fit his lean, muscled body perfectly, too.
"Of course," Ellen replied, a bit flustered at being faced with such a vision. "I didn't mean to hog it. Here, let me...." She filled his empty crystal flute - at least Alicia had pulled out her good glassware for the occasion - admiring the strong looking fingers that held the delicate stem.
"Happy New Year," the stranger said with a melting smile, clicking glasses.
"The same to you," Ellen replied. They sipped their champagne in silence. Ellen felt as though similar bubbles were cavorting in her chest. "I'm Ellen," she blurted out as the silence lengthened. "I work with Alicia."
"Very pleased to meet you, Ellen." The impeccably attired stranger took her hand. For an instant Ellen thought he intended to bring it to his lips. At the last moment, he merely gave it a firm squeeze. "Sean. I just joined the IT department. Night shift."
"Ah, that explains why I haven't seen you around the office. I'm sure that I would have noticed someone like you!" Ellen realized after she closed her mouth that she must sound like total bimbo. She blushed to the roots of her blond hair.
"Someone like me?" Sean raised one eyebrow, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Well - you know, so debonair and sophisticated... I mean, there aren't too many guys who would be could wear a tuxedo like that - so comfortably, I mean, as though you were born in it...oh, dear, I'm being terribly silly. I'm just impressed, to be honest. Most of these guys - outside of work, they're such slobs..."
She gestured toward the other end of the loft, where Bert and his buddies gyrated to the beat of AC/DC. Topping their baggy jeans, they wore football jerseys, faded flannel, or stretched out hoodies.
"I must say that you look lovely," Sean told her. "The black velvet makes your hair glow like spun gold. And your eyes remind me of emeralds."
"Gee - um - thank you." Ellen was dumbfounded. Men just didn't say things like that these days.
"Dance with me," Sean insisted. Ellen was about to refuse - she hated heavy metal - when the strains of a Strauss waltz reached her ears.
"Come on. Don't disappoint me." Graceful and confident, he folded her into his arms. They swooped across the floor of the loft, wings on their feet, while the music swelled around them.
Ellen felt completely comfortable in the embrace of this stranger. She looked up into his smiling eyes. "This is wonderful. But where did the music come from?"
Sean shrugged. "The plot required it."
His cool hand rested on her bare back. Then he moved it a bit lower. A little shiver ran up Ellen's spine. Who was this elegant stranger? Could she really trust him?
She gazed up at his pale, composed features. "Are you a vampire?" she asked suddenly.
Sean started, then laughed. "A vampire? Why in the world would you ask that?"
"Well, you have that kind of style, old-fashioned, polite, as though you'd been born a long time ago. And your skin is so white..."
"The consequences of spending my nights pounding out code in a cubicle and my days sleeping," he replied, obviously amused. He opened his mouth to divulge a set of perfectly aligned, normal teeth. "See? No fangs at all."
The Strauss ended and was replaced by Mozart. Sean continued to guide her, leading unobtrusively but firmly. She snuggled against him, enjoying the feel of his satiny tux under her finger tips. It all felt like a dream, or maybe a fairy tale, with Ellen as Cinderella.
"It's almost midnight," Alicia called from the bar, where she was opening more champagne.
Midnight. The gateway to a new year. Dimly she heard Bert leading the count down. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One." Everything but the dance and her partner seemed unreal.
Sean pulled her closer. His breath warmed her ear. "Happy New Year, Ellen," he whispered. Then he leaned down and kissed her.
For the first second or two, the kiss was almost chaste. His lips were gentle, as though asking a silent question. She gave him a wordless answer. Gaining confidence, he gathered her to his chest while his tongue invaded her mouth..
He tasted of champagne and faintly, fish, probably the smoked salmon canapés. Delicious. The kiss went on and on, growing fiercer and more feverish by the instant. His fingers dug into her hips like claws. Her nipples tightened under the stretchy velvet, until they were as hard as the stones dangling from her earlobes. The swollen bulk pressing against her belly told her that he was as aroused as she was.
Oh God! She was intoxicated, floating on a bubbly cloud, drinking him in. Cries of "Happy New Year" rang around them. Someone started singing "Auld Lang Syne". Ellen ignored everyone, lost in the most ecstatic kiss she'd ever experienced.
"It's starting to snow," someone called. "Perfect for New Year's!"
Sean abruptly broke their embrace. He looked anxiously out the floor-to-ceiling windows, where a few white flakes drifted lazily down onto the city. "Sorry," he mumbled, pushing her away. "Gotta go." He headed for the door.
"What? Wait! Where are you going? Sean?" Ellen nearly lost her balance. By the time she recovered, the tuxedo-clad gentleman who had stolen her breath and her heart had already vanished. She ran out to the empty landing and listened for his footsteps on the stairs. All she could hear was the wail of a distant siren.
Damn. She should have gotten his card, his number... She knew his first name, though, and the fact that he worked as Matheson, Fortuner and Todd just as she did. It shouldn't be too hard to find him.
She wandered back into the party, feeling more alone than ever. Midnight had come and gone but Alicia's guests didn't seem in any mood to go home. The music was louder and more raucous than before. Almost everyone was dancing, except for Alicia, who was in a clinch with her fiancé Paul.
Ellen found herself longing for her cozy apartment and her cat Franklin. For her, the party was over. Not wanting to disturb the hostess, she dug her coat and scarf out of the pile on the bed and headed downstairs.
The snow fell more heavily now. A quarter inch had already accumulated on the pavement. Her heels sank into the white blanket but it wasn't yet deep enough to make its way into her shoes. Ellen headed for the subway two blocks away, reminding herself that it might be slippery.
"Elsie! Wait a minute!" Someone grabbed her arm and whirled her around. "Where d'ya think you're going, bitch?"
Bert was clearly drunk. His face was red and his eyes watered from the cold. He had rushed after her without bothering with a jacket.
Ellen spoke slowly and deliberately, knowing from experience how hostile her ex could get when he'd had too many beers. "I'm headed home. I'm tired."
"Yeah? I'll bet you're going to meet that fancy boy somewhere. That guy you were smooching with, the one dressed up like a maitre'd. "
"I'm going home, Bert. But in any case, it's none of your business." Ellen disengaged herself from his strong grip. "Good night and Happy New Year." She started toward the corner.
"Not so fast, baby!" He snatched her coat and yanked her back. Ellen slipped on the pavement, smacking into his hard body. "You haven't given me a New Year's kiss yet." He brought his face close to hers. Ellen almost choked as the beer fumes enveloped her.
"I don't want to kiss you, Bert." Pressing her hands against his chest, she tried to push him away, but he held her tight. "I'm not your girlfriend anymore."
"You're mine," he replied, his voice thick. "You'll always be mine, baby. That's why I don't want you kissing no tuxedo-wearing fairy..." He forced his mouth down on hers. When she tried to protest, he plunged his tongue inside.
He tasted disgusting, the sour dregs of many beers mingling with onions from the pizza. He slobbered all over her, smearing her lipstick across her cheeks. Ellen struggled to free herself without success. Finally she just went limp and let him kiss her. It would be over soon enough.
Then she felt his cold hand sliding up under her skirt.
"No!" she cried.
"I know you missed me babe," Bert muttered, burying his face in her neck and giving her a hickie while she squirmed in his iron grip. "I'm gonna give you what you need."
All at once, someone or something rammed into them like a freight train, forcing them apart. Ellen landed on her butt in the snow. The impact dazed her and drove the breath from her lungs.
She gulped in huge mouthfuls of the frigid January air. What happened? Where was Bert?
When she saw the answer, she didn't believe it.
Her ex stood up against a wall, across the street. Actually, he wasn't standing; he was being held in place, his feet dangling, by a six foot tall black and white penguin. The binary-hued bird slapped his flipper back and forth across Bert's terrified face. Every now and again the penguin would raise one of its splayed pink feet and give Bert a vicious kick in the groin.
Ellen's former boyfriend groaned and twisted, trying to free himself from the penguin's clutches. His struggles only earned him more ferocious slaps.
"Lemme go! Please! I give up! I'll leave her alone. I promise...don't kill me...ow!" The penguin halted the beating and peered into Bert's face. Apparently satisfied, he let go of his victim. Bert crumpled to the ground.
The feathered vigilante loomed over Bert's cringing form.
"Don't hurt him anymore," Ellen cried. "Let him go."
The avian avenger turned in her direction, fixing her with its beady blank eyes. Ellen had the strangest sense of familiarity. Meanwhile, as soon as he saw that the bird's attention was elsewhere, Bert scrambled to a crouch and limped off in the direction of Alicia's building.
Ellen tried without success to rise to her feet. They kept sliding out from under her. Snowflakes swirled around her, settling on her eyelashes and blurring her vision. The next time she could see clearly, the oversized fowl had disappeared.
Too much champagne? she wondered. She didn't feel drunk. In any case, she had bigger problems than a giant penguin. Cold moisture seeped through her coat. Her toes grew numb. She shivered uncontrollably. The snow had stopped, but the temperature must be dropping. When a final attempt to get up failed, she worked herself onto her hands and knees. She'd crawl to the subway if she had to.
"Ellen! Let me help you!"
She recognized the voice. Relief flooded through her. "Sean! I was looking for you..."
"You'll catch your death from exposure," he replied. "Let's get you to some place warm." With his assistance, she managed to make it to a standing position. Leaning on his muscular arm, she allowed him to lead her to a twenty-four hour diner around the corner, where he ordered coffee for both of them.
Ellen cupped her hands around the mug, feeling the blood return to her fingers. Sean sat across from her, looking as sleek and elegant as he had at the party. He was not wearing a coat.
"Why did you leave so abruptly?" she asked. Her delight at seeing him again made it hard for her to be angry.
Sean stared into his cup. "I had to," he answered finally.
"Why? Tell me. You can trust me."
"Really, you don't want to know."
"I do. I want to know everything about you, Sean. I feel so close to you already." She reached across the table to capture his hand. "I want to get closer."
"No...it's not possible."
The pain she saw in his eyes made Ellen's heart ache too. "Anything's possible. This is a romance." She squeezed his cool hand. "Please..."
Sean just shook his head. "No. It's forbidden."
They sat in silence. The waitress topped up their mugs. Still neither of them spoke.
"How abou this?" Ellen broke the silence. "If I guess correctly, will you tell me?"
Sean gazed at her, a flicker of hope animating his face.
"It was you, wasn't it. The penguin."
Sean nodded slowly. "How did you know?" he whispered.
"I'm not sure. I just felt that I knew the bird, somehow... plus he was protecting me, the way I know you would..."
"Oh, Ellen!" He took her hand in both of his. "It's such a nightmare..."
"Tell me," she murmured. She glanced around the coffee shop. They were the only customers. The stocky Latina waitress was watching television. "Tell me, my darling."
Sean took a deep breath then let it out slowly. "I was cursed," he began. "By an Inuit shaman. I was doing graduate research in ecology near the North Pole. Somehow I desecrated a site considered sacred. The curse was my punishment."
Ellen sat quietly, waiting for him to continue.
"The shaman decreed that whenever the snow began to fall, I'd take the shape of a penguin."
"Um, I thought that penguins lived at the South Pole."
Sean shrugged. "You expect black magic to be logical?"
"So back at the party, when it started to snow...."
"I had to get out of there before it was too late. I didn't want you to see me change. I didn't want you to see me - like that..."
"I couldn't let that bastard take advantage of you. I had to do something! Oh, Ellen! I've been so lonely. I hate my miserable existence. I've even thought of - of taking my own life. But tonight, for the first time, when I met you..."
"I know, Sean. I felt it too." Ellen released his hand and sat back in the booth. "You're not alone any more. I'll help you to free yourself from this horror." She placed three dollars on the table under her mug. Then she stood and offered him her hand.
"Come home with me, darling. I want more of your swoon-inducing kisses."
"Are you sure... knowing what I am? What if the snow starts again?"
"I'll deal with it. We'll deal with it together. I love you, Sean. There's nothing that can keep us apart, not even an Eskimo curse or a giant bird. Let's go."
Like the gentleman that he was, Sean helped her on with her coat. He brushed his lips across her damp hair. "I love you too, Ellen. Thank you for trusting me."
Joy swelled in Ellen's breast. Everything would be all right. After all her pain, the universe had smiled. She had found her soul mate.
"There's just one thing."
"What is it, darling?"
"Is there an all-night grocery near here? I think we should pick up some canned herring on the way home."
PROBABLY NOT TO BE CONTINUED....!