Ivy has just cause to be wary of men. Her long-time fiancé backed out of their wedding. The slow fizzle of their undramatic relationship leaves her wondering if romance is a myth. Then, Adam, an intriguing new member of her pet organization, catches Ivy’s attention. Unfortunately, his cat Isis, a beautiful purebred Egyptian Mau, prefers to pick on her cat, Memnet. Ivy would like to get to know Adam better, but with her self-esteem in the gutter and feline fights at every turn, she wonders how to proceed.
When Ivy agrees to help a clingy friend find her missing pet, she learns that true love doesn’t need theatrics. There’s hope for Adam and Ivy, if only their cats would approve.
“Where’s Adelaide? Who’s got my baby?”
Pfannie Morgenstern was such a drama queen. Just look at her nametag. She even drew little upside-down triangles like cat ears over the n’s. I was on a mission to meet and apologize to Donald’s friend Adam, so I ignored the perpetually frantic pet owner accosting Christmas partygoers as if they’d hidden her fat Siamese in their cups of punch.
She grabbed me. “Did you see her, Ivy? She’s got the bluest eyes.” Pfannie sniffed. “I’ve only been her housemate for four months. She doesn’t know anyone here.”
I looked at her hand, fingers tipped in crimson like daggers, on my arm. Her wrist jingled with a charm bracelet—silver, all cats, of course. She sniffed some more and hesitantly withdrew her dangerous touch.
“It’s just, Ivy…please, you know everyone here. Help me look, won’t you? Who would want to kidnap my Adelaide?”
No one, I wanted to tell her. Adelaide wasn’t even purebred. Judging by the tan patches on her hips, some calico had hedged its way into her family line. And no, I didn’t know everyone here. But I wanted to. I watched Donald’s hunky pal, Adam Thompson, stride away.
I slid my eyes back to Pfannie’s amazing makeup job. I didn’t think she was that much older than I was—maybe thirty-five at the most, and obviously better groomed. Even her hair was supposed to be chic-messy, sticking out from a bun while mine was just plain messy, curling all over my shoulders no matter how hard I tried to make it behave. Doing its own thing—just like a cat. Pfannie was right—cats were not our pets. We were their housemates.
“How long has it been since you last saw Adelaide?” I asked, hoping this would be a quick little piece of cake. “Let’s look over here.”
Seriously, how hard could it be to find a pet cat among the few dozen animal lovers at our first ever holiday Cat Association Titlist get-together? And speaking of cake…the dessert table had at least four kinds of chocolate, reflected in colored glass balls scattered around the green and plaid tablecloth. I gazed longingly as we passed on our mission to find Adelaide.
Our little group was the Illinois branch of a national cat fanciers association. Donald Conklin, my friend who’d introduced me to the group years ago, before Stanley, was the outgoing president. Pfannie’s nephew, Almanzo, named after Laura’s husband in Little House on the Prairie, was incoming president.
We stopped at various nooks and crannies in the humungous sprawling veterinarian complex outside of the capital, Springfield, which sponsored our organization. Donald was the mayor of a tiny little town in western Illinois called Apple Grove. We weren’t far from there, about forty minutes northeast. It had taken Memnet and me a couple of hours to drive down here from our place in Maplewood, on the far western edge of Chicago, where I currently lived alone except for my cat…but not for long. Yippee! My much-needed fresh start was in the works. That thought alone pushed me out of my dejection from being ditched. There was nothing like the gloom of rejection to throw a girl off her game.
As we wandered the room’s perimeter, I called for Adelaide a couple of times, swishing aside long coats in the cloak room to peek under them. Hooper’s Animal Haven had an amazingly designed public area which could be conformed in various layouts for classes, meetings, or the occasional convention. For the Cat Association party, a large gathering room with a buffet and drinks bar had been opened. Three rooms were partitioned off to the side where pets could visit, supervised, away from their owners, have some privacy to take care of business, or try different varieties of food. Did I mention Hooper’s sold expensive, custom-mixed pet food? As well as everything a pet owner could, and couldn’t, imagine necessary to provide extraordinary living experiences for host and…yep, housemate. I should know, as I maintained their website.
I popped into the room where my darling Memnet, a purebred silver Egyptian Mau, the only spotted breed of domestic cat, lay in kingly glory atop a carpeted kitty playhouse. Ginger, the fourteen-year-old honor student in charge of the room, waved. Memnet lazily groomed a paw while four other cats, including Donald’s bronze Mau, Tut, patted toys about.
“Have you seen Mrs. Morgenstern’s cat?” I asked her. “The Siamese mix?”
Ginger frowned. Pfannie took a quick inhaled hiss. I cut her off. “Her sweet chubby little Adelaide?”
“No, ma’am. Ma’ams.” Ginger shook her head. “Was she assigned to this room? Did you check the other rooms?”
“We will.” I smiled at her despite being “ma’am’d” like some little old lady, and pulled Pfannie away. We did. Check the rooms. No Adelaide.
“Isn’t your boyfriend here?” I asked Pfannie before we got out of the party room. “Rudy? Ron? R—”
“Rolf.” Pfannie pursed her lips. Sparks shot from her eyes. “He was. He stepped out for a minute. Half an hour ago.”
Hmm. “So…maybe Adelaide is with him?”
“No way! She’s so…so new. She hasn’t decided whether she likes him or not.”
“Well, that could be a problem.” Oops, had I said that out loud? Fortunately, Pfannie didn’t act as though she’d heard.
Two exits on either side of the party room led back into the clinic area, while two exits led outside, one of them to the parking lot.
Pfannie continued to head for the exterior-side hall out of the party room and into the main complex. This passageway was decorated with lattice covered in white net and little lights, like a wedding reception joint. Which this room was on occasion. Pet weddings were huge. Anyway, in honor of Christmas, a glorious ball of mistletoe hung from the top of the lattice. Pfannie eyeballed the mistletoe as we got close. Her tears put out the sparks in her eyes from her belief in Rolf’s abandonment.
“I’ve forgotten Rolf’s pet cat’s name,” I said, trying to figure out what was going on. “Maybe Adelaide is with…him? Her?”
“It’s Junior. Black with pea green eyes,” Pfannie said.
A memory caught me. “Isn’t Junior the bicolor with the white bib and tie? A tuxedo? I love him.” And I did. Junior had won Personality of the Year two years ago. He and Mem were buddies.
“He’s so unimaginative,” Pfannie muttered. “He has no idea how hard it is to do everything alone. None.” Her teary lashes fluttered at the mistletoe. “Please, Ivy. What if Adelaide is hurt? Trapped somewhere, and needs me? She has no one else.”
I scanned the room. No one was paying any attention to us. Donald was chatting it up with some folks whose names I couldn’t recall. Where was Adam? Pfannie wasn’t a bad sort, just one of those people who needed attention. Constantly. “Sure,” I told her. “We can keep looking. She’s bound to turn up. It’s a big place, but she has to be somewhere, right?” And it wasn’t as if I had anything else to do. Since my ex-fiancé’s decampment after such a long, fizzled relationship, I couldn’t get over the desolation of being a rejected half, as if there was something wrong with me.
Quiet, contemporary jazzy holiday music followed us through the twinkly lights. We walked on, checking the ladies’ rooms along the wall of the main building entrance and reception, and under the water fountain.
“Adelaide might be thirsty and tried to beg a drink of water, but no one would help her,” Pfannie said.
I did not roll my eyes, though I almost had to physically stick my fingers on the lids to stop them. Pfannie took the lead when we reached the door of Hooper’s Animal Haven Supply Salon. The Salon was open for business during the party, naturally.
“Maybe she sneaked inside,” Pfannie said, with all the feral intent of Christmas shop-aholism, despite her quest for her missing pet. I followed, even though I was pretty sure the two clerks would notice a stray Siamese.
It was half an hour before I could return Pfannie’s attention to our mission. I tugged her away from the cat sweaters with holes for ears. She weepingly thrust the blue-and-white rhinestone-decorated kitty hoodie back into the clerk’s arms. “I’ll be back later. With Adelaide. To try it on,” she called.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” the chubby clerk yodeled back, waving a matching adult-size scarf with jingling bells.
Like we were leaving on the Titanic. This time I rolled my eyes and dragged Pfannie out the other door of the shop which opened into the side hall leading back to the party room. The area was surprisingly dark. I halted and Pfannie crashed into me.
“Wh-what?” she whispered. “Why’d you stop? Did you hear something?”
“It’s dark,” I said in my normal voice. “I don’t know why the lights are off. I think the switches are over here, on the wall near the corner.” I hoped they weren’t covered and locked. I heard party sounds echoing so I didn’t expect we were off limits. We’d all had to check in at the reception desk when we arrived.
“I thought you heard a meow. Or a purr.”
I wouldn’t willingly interrupt a purr. But footsteps echoed along the hall. Firm steps, purposeful. I held my breath.
The silhouette of a back-lit very fit man’s arm pushing open the door to the men’s room sent Pfannie into action. She scurried forward. “Oh, hey! Sir! Kind sir! Please help us. Adelaide is missing. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind checking…”
I wasn’t sure which would be worse, standing there in the dark, or supporting Pfannie’s dubious request. I shook my head. The person looked past Pfannie toward me. Once tagged, I had to follow, of course, and approached slowly and most reluctantly. He probably thought I was a hundred years old.
Shoot me now, I begged anyone when I neared them. I didn’t need the reflected men’s room light on the man’s name tag to identify Donald’s friend.
Pfannie squinted at the tag while taking surreptitiouspeeks into the men’s room, as if she’d never been inside. She probably hadn’t. “A-adam? Is it you?”
“Yes?” He let the door close to reach out and take Pfannie’s outstretched hand. We now had only weak light reflected from the Christmas decorations. “Adam Thompson.”
“Oh, yes,” Pfannie said. “Widower. Chicago. Smoke Mau.” She nodded, her human resources department memory in full showoff mode. “Feisty lady. Had some run-ins with Ivy’s fella, if I recall.”
I was not exactly a fan of the dark, but in this case my gratitude was unbounded. How marvelous that Pfannie would recall something I’d tried to put out of my head for the past eight months, and the reason I wanted to apologize to him. In person this time. It might take that long to cool the heat percolating around my face.
Adam peered around Pfannie.
She half-turned and indicated me. “You remember Ivy Preston, don’t you?”
Mortified, I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I couldn’t be sure, but…had he winked? He faced Pfannie. “You were saying?”
I twisted and fanned my face, though I realized that was counter-productive. Frantic motion would only create more energy and make me warmer.
“But we shouldn’t keep you,” Pfannie was telling Adam.
“I’ll be happy to check the room for you,” Adam said. “Though I don’t know how a Siamese cat would go unnoticed.” His teeth gleamed in the semi-dark. “I’ll just come and find you in a few minutes, shall I?”
Pfannie tittered. I had no other word to describe the sound escaping her lips. Adam glanced briefly in my direction before making it all the way into the men’s room. I clutched my companion’s elbow and urged her back toward the party. “C’mon. Maybe Adelaide’s turned up by now. Let’s check with the others.”
“Oh, my. Isn’t he a hunk? Nasty scars, though.” Pfannie followed along, thoughts of Rolf apparently not preventing her from hyperventilating over another man.
I admitted a sting of woe. Pfannie had a past husband and current boyfriend. The unfairness of life, my mother would tell me if I complained to her. I, too, had wondered about Adam Thompson’s scarred neck and arm but being hitched to Stanley blinded me to appreciating any of Adam’squalities.
“I’ve never seen such a beautiful creature as his Isis,” Pfannie blathered. “Well deserving of the Best in Class trophy.” She stopped and set her hand on mine. “We think the world of you and Memnet, Ivy. Almanzo was telling me the other day he hoped you’d agree to a seat on the board.”
Her eyes got that misty look and made me mentally start backing up.
“If only you and he…well, I mean, now that you and what’s his name—”
“Ivy! There you are!” Donald called and beckoned.
Good grief! I was so saved. Pfannie was a very young aunt to have a nephew my age. He had learned about my age from official files of the group that were supposed to be private and made sure to let me know he thought we would be suitable partners. Almanzo was still single…go figure…and had managed to date every other single woman in our branch. Except me. I’d been engaged. Last week I turned down two phone invitations from him to attend this evening’s party together. I contemplated changing my phone number. And my birthday.
Donald understood me, and my frame of mind. He also knew how I felt about Christmas—unadulterated hatred grown stronger with my canceled wedding set for last weekend—and he offered me a sympathetic smile. He had retrieved his cat Tut who was oddly content in Donald’s arms despite the commotion in the room. “I wanted to share something with you…” His twinkly expression faded only a smidgeon when he noticed who was with me. “Mrs. Morgenstern. Hello.”
She sniffed. “Mr. President. Has my Adelaide been found?”
How in the world did that woman turn the tears on and off like that? What gift.
“I didn’t know she was missing.” Donald swung his worried gaze toward mine. “Is that where you’ve been? Looking for her?”
“Yes.” Pfannie began twisting a lace-edged handkerchief between her hands, setting the cat charms at her wrist jingling in a clash with the music. “We ran into Adam—Isis’s companion—who agreed to check in the men’s room for us.”
I choked on the laughter bubbling up at her statement, stuffed it back, but snorted, which only made me giggle harder. Pfannie narrowed her eyes at me. I grabbed my throat and made like I needed water.
Tut gave an angry hiss and jumped down, sat, and sent his ears back. Donald must have clutched him in a sensitive spot. Donald stopped biting his lips and cupped his mouth like a megaphone. “Everyone! Excuse me, friends!”
Background noise dissolved like bubbles from flat champagne.
“Has anyone seen Adelaide, Mrs. Morgenstern’s cat? Let’s all take a look around ourselves. Think of the last time you might have seen her. And let’s offer up a prayer of safety, shall we?”
“Oh, I should have thought of that right away,” Pfannie whispered at me. She raised her hand to toss in her two cents. “She’s a precious Siamese, quite young. I’m worried she hasn’t had a chance to get to get comfortable with anyone yet and may have gone into hiding. Don’t worry, people. No cause to call the authorities. I’m quite certain this isn’t a case of bullying.”
I choked again on snorts of glee at her posturing and felt the warmth of someone behind me. “Like Memnet and Isis,” someone said dryly.
“Hey!” I hissed at Isis’s “companion,” my need to apologize for the cat fight at last spring’s convention lost. “Mem was provoked.”
Adam held up his hands. His slow grin curled my toes. “Maybe.”
Two issues struck me at the same time. In the few months since Stanley had left me not-quite-at-the-altar-but-too-close-for-comfort, I had managed to thaw toward men. Not only thaw, but be attracted to a man. I was not dead.
But I’d also agreed to move a hundred miles away from what might have been the start of a beautiful relationship.
“Ah, good.” Donald rubbed his hands together as he joined us. “I’ve been working toward getting the three of us together all night. Adam and I have been talking.”