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Norman, the sleek, black-and-white cat, sat expectantly on the kitchen table across from Catherine Travis's chair. Her mother would be horrified to see a cat on the table, but Catherine merely shrugged in response to that thought. Her parents were in China, enjoying each other's company, while she was stuck here alone in Little Rock, Arkansas. Since Norman was the only one available on this September Sunday evening to help Catherine celebrate her thirtieth birthday, he could pretty much sit anywhere he liked, as far as she was concerned.
He watched intently as she lit the single candle topping a chocolate-frosted cupcake. She sat back to admire the flickering flame, noting the way it reflected in Norman's big, golden eyes. She couldn't help but smile at his expression as he looked from her to the candle and then back again.
"You look as though you know exactly what we're doing," she remarked to the nine-month-old cat who had made his home with her for the past six months. "I half expect you to start singing the happy birthday song to me now."
Norman meowed obligingly. The sound was actually rather musical, Catherine decided. "Thank you. That was lovely."
She leaned forward to blow out the candle but then stopped herself. "Oh, wait. If I'm going to throw myself a birthday party, I should do it right. I'm supposed to make a wish before I blow out the candle, aren't I?"
Norman's ears flicked in interest. Curling his tail around his white feet, he sat up straighter, looking at her encouragingly. Although she knew darned well that he was waiting for the cat treat she was holding for him, she indulged herself with the pretense that he was actually interested in what she had to say.
"Okay, here's my wish. I wish I had someone with whom to share occasions like this. Birthdays, holidays, other special events.As much as I appreciate your companionship, Normie, it would be nice to have a human male in my life."
She blew out the candle. She and Norman both watched the thin line of white smoke drift from the blackened wick to dissipate above the table. Only then did she set the salmon-flavored treat in front of her cat. "There you go, pal. Enjoy."
He sniffed at the treat, took an experimental lick, then began to nibble delicately, his tail twitching with pleasure. Catherine peeled the paper from the sides of the cupcake and took a bite, letting the rich chocolate frosting dissolve slowly on her tongue. "Mmm. Good."
Norman responded with a muted, whirring noise that might have been agreement.
She reached out to stroke his silky back, and he arched into her touch. If only people were as easy to understand as her cat, she mused wistfully. Men, especially.
She had a couple of advanced degrees, was quite successful in her career as a biomedical researcher, had a few good friends and a nice apartment, but she had never really learned the art of dating. As far as she knew, there were no classes in flirtation, and she had never picked up the talent in her science labs.
She had been focused so single-mindedly on her education and her career that she had missed out on learning how to play. She just wasn't a "fun" person, she thought with a sigh. The only men who had asked her out during the past couple of years had bored her half-senseless. She seemed destined to be alone with her work and her cat.
To distract herself from her mounting self-pity, she reached for the small stack of presents she had saved to open all at once. Her friend Karen Kupperman from work had given her a tin of herbal tea and a scented candle in a pretty cobalt glass holder. Practical and yet slightly self-indulgent—just the sort of gift Karen would appreciate herself.
Karen was in Europe now, on a two-week trip with her husband, Wayne. They had combined a vacation with a science conference in Geneva, and Karen had been looking forward to the excursion for months.
Catherine's other friend, Julia, a public attorney, had given her another practical, but elegant, present—a pair of soft brown leather gloves lined with cashmere. Lovely, she thought, trying them on to admire the perfect fit. Typical of Julia—who was currently in New York City at a convention of lawyers.
A couple of Catherine's graduate students had gone in together to buy her an emerald-green cashmere scarf. Rubbing it against her cheek, she murmured her appreciation of the luxuriously soft feel. She would enjoy this when the weather turned cold. Since it was almost the end of September now, it wouldn't be much longer until the temperatures began to drop.
Finally there was the package from her parents, both academics currently teaching at a university in China. They had sent her a beautiful silk blouse and a check. The blouse pleased her; the check made her frown.
She wished she could convince them that she was doing fine financially. An only child born to them rather late in life, she had been overprotected and indulged, gently pushed to follow in their academic footsteps, raised in a sheltered, Ivy-League environment that hadn't exactly prepared her for modern dating and socializing. And now, despite her career and her friends and her financial security—she was lonely on her birthday.
Biting her lip, she set the gifts aside and picked up her pet, snuggling into his neck. His purr vibrated against her cheek as she murmured, "I know wishes don't really come true, Norman, but just this once I'll try to believe.... "
The day after Catherine's birthday was a Monday, and it started out with a minor frustration. After she had showered and dressed for work, she walked into the kitchen to prepare her breakfast, only to find one of the knobs from her stove broken off and lying on the linoleum floor.
"Great," she muttered, bending to pick it up. The knob had been loose for weeks—something she had meant to report but kept forgetting. She couldn't imagine how it had broken off by itself during the night, but here it was.
Shaking her head, she stepped over the cat winding himself around her ankles and picked up the phone to call the rental office. As it happened, the new maintenance guy had just stepped into the office, she was told, and he could come right then if it was convenient for her. It would take him only a couple of minutes to repair the knob.
She agreed, then called her lab to let them know she would be a little late. Fortunately, her schedule was flexible that day, so she didn't have to rush in. If something had to break, it seemed it had happened at a convenient time, she mused, walking toward the front door in anticipation of the maintenance man's arrival. While she was accustomed to prompt responses from the management of her upscale apartment complex, this was even faster than usual.
Three quick raps announced his arrival, and she opened her door. Then very nearly dropped her jaw.
The last maintenance man who had repaired something in her apartment had been sixtyish, beer-bellied, balding and borderline surly. This guy looked somewhere in his mid-to late-twenties, athletically built, handsome in a blond, blue-eyed way, and flashed a hundred white teeth in a melt-your-spine smile.
All semblance of her usual intelligence and composure leaked right out of her brain. "Er...uh..."
"I'm Mike Clancy," he said, tapping the ID badge he wore on the pocket of a blue denim work shirt. He held a toolbox in his left hand. "Lucille said you've got a broken knob on your stove?"
"Oh, yes. Of course." Moving awkwardly out of the doorway, she motioned toward the kitchen. "It's in there."
Brilliant, she thought with a slight wince. Where else would the stove be? The bathroom?
But he merely nodded and walked into the living room, casting a quick glance around at her carefully put-together green, burgundy and cream decor. "I like the way you've decorated. It looks real comfortable."
"Thank you." Since comfort had been the primary criterion for each piece she had selected, she was pleased by the adjective.
"Well, hello." Mike bent to offer a friendly hand to Norman, who sniffed him, then promptly rolled onto his back in a shameless bid for a belly scratch. Chuckling, Mike obliged, generating a rumbling purr that Catherine could hear from where she stood.
"He likes you," she commented unnecessarily. "He usually hides from strangers."
"He can probably tell that I like cats. What's his name?" Watching that capable-looking, nicely shaped hand stroking the cat's fur, and unable to miss noticing how Mike's jeans strained against his crouching thighs, Catherine had to take a moment to come up with the answer.
"Norman. His name is Norman."
"Hey, there, Norman." He scratched just under Norman's pointy black chin, causing the silly cat to go into a frenzy of purring and wriggling. And then he straightened, to the disappointment of both cat and owner. "Okay. Where's the knob?"
Doubting he would appreciate an audience while he worked, Catherine stayed in the living room, but the apartment just happened to be arranged so that she could see him from the couch, where she had settled with the newspaper. She read maybe three words of the lead story, and those only when he glanced her way. The rest of the time, she simply watched him from beneath her eyelashes, struck by the novelty of having such a good-looking man in her kitchen.
Norman wasn't nearly as circumspect in his staring. He sat in the kitchen doorway, ears perked and nose twitching as he watched Mike work. Occasionally he glanced at Catherine as if to say, "Why are you way over there when your visitor is in here?"
Or maybe she was just projecting.
It took only a few minutes for Mike to repair the stove. He came out of the kitchen all tousled hair and gleaming smile, and her breath caught hard in her throat. "It's fixed," he announced. "Anything else you need before I go?"
Maybe a woman who'd learned how to flirt would answer that leading question with a witty comeback. A funny innuendo that would make him laugh, then give her a second look.
Catherine said only, "No, that's all. Thank you for coming so promptly."
"You're welcome." With a last pat for Norman, Mike let himself out, telling her to call again if she needed any other repairs.
Catherine closed and locked the door behind him, then sagged against it. She wasn't usually the type to notice such things, but Mike Clancy had one fine, tight butt encased in those soft denim jeans. She wasn't sure whether to be more dismayed or relieved that she had noticed this time.
At least it proved she was still in the game, she finally decided—even if only as a quiet spectator.
Late Wednesday afternoon Mike tapped on the door of apartment 906. If no one was home, he was authorized to let himself in and handle the repair job he'd been assigned, but he heard someone stirring inside. He smiled when the attractive brunette who had let him in only a couple of days earlier opened the door to him again. "I understand you have a broken window blind."
Her cheeks were pink, her expression chagrined when she nodded. "I haven't needed maintenance in almost a year, and now I've had two problems in one week. I'm sorry to be so much trouble."
"That's what I'm here for." Had it been anyone else, he might have suspected ulterior motives. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been called to a woman's apartment on a trumped-up excuse. But he would bet this woman was different.
For one thing, Catherine Travis—Dr. Catherine Travis, he reminded himself, having been told a little about this tenant by the rather gossipy apartment office manager—seemed genuinely put out that she'd had to request his services again. For another—well, get real. This woman was class from her neat brown bob to her sensibly shod feet. Hardly the type to angle for a quick fling with the maintenance man.
In this case he could almost be disappointed, he thought. The living room window she led him to gave her a view of the parking lot and the swimming pool on the other side of the compound. A sliding glass door on another wall of the living room led onto a small balcony shaded by a big oak tree, which grew right at the corner of her end apartment. The balcony, too, overlooked the parking lot, except for the little patch of grass and bushes that lined the sidewalk leading to her steps.
The view from the large, back bedroom was better, he knew, though he hadn't been into that particular room in this two-bedroom apartment. From there she would be able to see the Arkansas River beyond the levee that protected the complex from flooding.
Catherine motioned toward the crookedly hanging window blind, the gesture emphasizing the gracefulness he had noted about her before. Slender and just slightly above average in height, she looked as though she could have been a model or a glamorous actress, rather than the scientist he knew her to be.
Her face was a perfect oval, framed by glossy brown hair shot with golden highlights that looked natural. Her eyes were a dark chocolate brown, her nose small and straight, her lips softly curved. Even dressed in a casual red knit top and comfortable-looking black slacks with black flats, she had a sort of classic poise about her that he would bet his sisters would openly envy.