Cass never dreamed he'd be living the quiet life in the country. He'd been struggling for as long as he could remember, and there had been a time when he thought past mistakes would haunt him forever.
Two years ago he'd been given the break of a lifetime and the chance for a new and better life for himself and his mother and sister. He'd been caring for them since he was twelve years old, taking over for his father who had been sentenced to life in Grimton City Prison for murder.
Cass wasn't proud of the things he'd done to keep his family together, things that in the long run had almost torn them apart.
That was in the past for him. Since then he'd taken a new job--a legitimate job--doing something he loved. He'd started as an assistant to the gardener in the Fairy Museum located just outside Hot River Campground.
Hot River ran through the entire world of magic, connecting and nourishing it. For most of his life Cass had only known the Grimton City area of Hot River. Until coming to the museum, he'd never realized how peaceful and beautiful the world could be.
When the chief gardener retired, Cass had been offered his position. It included a pleasant house on museum grounds as well as decent pay. Best of all, he got to care for a wide variety of magical trees and plants. The museum had almost every kind of magical plant in existence and was home to hundreds of sprites and nymphs.
Cass had always felt a connection to magical plants and flowers. Even in Grimton City he'd worked in a greenhouse, but it wasn't the same as the sweet country air and rolling meadows at the Fairy Museum.
Cass' favorite residents were the Transcendent tree sprites--sprites who had undergone a ritual that transformed them from tiny treetop residents into shapeshifters who became trees themselves. Not all sprites became Transcendent. It was reserved for particularly dedicated ones who fully understood the philosophy of Hot River. Few Transcendent sprites existed and the museum was lucky to have several living on its grounds. The pear and oak Transcendents had been Cass' first friends at the museum. They'd made him feel at home and helped him adjust to his new job.
Though he did his best to make sure all the plants and flowers were healthy and happy, he took special care of the trees, harvesting their fruit on time and seeing that they had plenty of water even in the dry season. Not that much vandalism occurred in this part of Hot River, but he made sure no one carved words or symbols in their trunks or mistreated them in any way.
Each Transcendent tree sprite had a little sign posted near it with his name imprinted on it. Not that Cass needed signs anymore. They were for the tourists. Cass recognized each and every sprite, except for one.
A particular apple tree never changed to his human form. Cass sometimes wondered if he was a sprite at all, or just an ordinary apple tree. Not that it mattered. Cass loved all trees and had no problem with caring for this one, regardless of whether or not it shifted into a sprite.
At the moment Cass was standing on a ladder, picking fruit from that particular tree. Fidel was the name on the sign beside it. Fidel, a sturdy apple tree who bore the most delicious fruit on the premises.
Cass had spent all afternoon harvesting apples from Fidel. He didn't want the fruit to turn bad or the weight to burden the tree for too long. Even if he never changed to his human form, he deserved respect for the quality of the fruit he provided. So what if he didn't feel the need to so much as introduce himself after two years? After all, who was Cass, a simple human, to make a judgment on a noble sprite?
He paused a moment and gazed skyward. Dusk was setting in and Cass' stomach grumbled with hunger. "It's time for me to go home for dinner, Fidel," he said. "But I'll be back in the morning, after I do some weeding in the rose garden."
He reached for a large red apple and shined it on his shirt, then took a bite, loving the firmness of the fruit and the snap as his teeth sank into it. Sweetness filled his mouth and he took a moment to chew and swallow before climbing down the ladder.
Cass sat under Fidel and leaned his back against his trunk. He rested a moment while enjoying the apple. When he finished, he tossed the core in the trash bag in his pickup truck. Then he loaded the ladder and baskets of apples he'd picked onto the truck. Before going home he needed to drop off the apples at the museum café, where the cook would use them to create a variety of dishes. Cass intended to take some home too and make his favorite dessert, apple crisp.
A short time later, he was on the way home. To get there from the museum's main building, he needed to cut across the field where the fruit trees grew.
By now night had fallen, but the full moon made it easy to see. He noticed movement by Fidel. Silhouettes of two children stood by the tree. Cass saw the glint of a blade in the hand of one boy and he shouted, "Hey! Get away from that tree!"
He jumped out of the truck and ran toward the children, who fled. Cass prided himself on being very athletic and he had no doubts about catching the brats. No one destroyed museum property, especially these beautiful tree sprites. Not on his watch.
He'd nearly caught up to the children when a hand fell on his shoulder and dragged him backward.
Frustrated, Cass jerked away from his pursuer and turned sharply. "Get your hands off me!"
He would have continued, but shock stole his speech.
In front of him stood the most wildly gorgeous creature he'd ever seen. Well over six feet tall, with skin the same rich brown as bark and hair the same deep green as leaves, this tree sprite took Cass' breath away. The sprite's eyes were such vivid green that their color was noticeable even in the moonlight. Sleek muscles sculpted his rangy body. From his broad shoulders to his long, chiseled legs, he was sex appeal personified. He stood towering and half-naked, those vibrant eyes locked on Cass.
The gardener licked his lips, his heart beating fast from more than his recent sprint.
"Calm yourself," the sprite said in a deep, soothing voice. "They're only children."
"They wanted to defile you."
"I think they merely wanted to carve their initials in me."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"It's something many trees must put up with."
"From humans who have no knowledge of magic maybe, but not from children who live along Hot River. They should know better." Cass' voice faded a bit and he closed his eyes momentarily. He was the last person who should make judgments about others. Not with all the terrible things he'd done in his past.
"Your reaction took me by surprise, Cass. You're usually gentle."
Cass' brow furrowed. "I'm sorry, but I don't recognize you. I thought I knew every sprite on museum property, but--"
"You do know me." The sprite smiled, his white teeth gleaming against his dark skin. "In fact you know me so well that you tasted my fruit just a short time ago."
Now Cass was really surprised, and thrilled. He smiled. "Fidel?"
The sprite bowed from the neck.
"I've wanted to meet you since I started working here."
"You have made life here pleasant, Cass, and you have my gratitude."
"Thank you, I..."
The sprite turned and walked away. The sight of Fidel's sinewy back and tight, rounded ass stirred thoughts that made Cass' cock twitch.
"Hey! Where are you going?" Cass jogged to catch up with him. Fidel had incredibly long strides.
"Back to my space," Fidel replied, glancing at Cass from the corner of his eye. "I'm afraid there will be no more apples to harvest tomorrow. You know when my kind shift shape we lose our fruit."
"It's all right. I've already picked tons of apples. You had a great yield."
"I'll miss your visit tomorrow now that there's nothing left to harvest."
"I'll still come by," Cass told him. "If ... If you want me to."
They had reached the area where Fidel always stood in his tree form. The sprite paused in front of Cass, his lovely gaze locked with the gardener's. "I would like that very much."
"Then I'll see you in the morning." Cass took a step toward his pickup truck, then turned back to the sprite. Another thrill shot through him when he saw Fidel hadn't stopped staring at him. "Fidel?"
"When I come tomorrow, will you talk to me again?"
A faint, almost longing smile touched the sprite's lips. "I look forward to it."
"Good. So do I."
They gazed at each other for another long moment, then Cass walked toward his truck. He paused after a few steps and glanced back at Fidel. The apple tree stood, still and strong in the moonlight. His branches seemed to wave at Cass, or perhaps it was the wind...