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Lily Malkin undid the barrette holding her hair out of her face. The thick black curls slid past her shoulders, and she reached up to run her fingers against her scalp, feeling herself relax. The headache that had haunted her all morning, residue from her usual insomnia, eased a little more.
"Mrrrup?" A tiny paw batted against her knee, demanding attention, and the chance to claw those curls.
"Hello, Rai." Lily scooped the tiny silver tabby up in one hand, easily keeping the needle-tiny claws away from her hair. The kitten complained, and she soothed it by stroking the soft head until the outraged expression was replaced by heavy lids and a gentle purr.
Lily could almost feel her own eyelids lowering in response. Kitty nap-vibes, the other shelter volunteers called it: the sincere conviction that everything in the world could be made better by stopping to nap in the sun. Oh, if only that were true. She raised the kitten higher and touched her nose to the little pink one. "There you go. Life's not so bad. And it will only get better for you now, I promise."
The kitten, secure in her grip, kneaded its claws sleepily against her skin, but didn't otherwise respond. Lily only wished that her problems were that easily solved. Never a particularly good sleeper, she had been averaging less than four hours a night for the past month, and it was taking its toll.
Madness takes its toll. Please have exact change ready. The old joke was even less funny now than it had been in college, she thought. At least then, she had exams and a social life to blame for her exhaustion. Now Now there were only dreams that she couldn't remember, and a sense hanging over her thatthere was something, somewhere, she needed to do. Something important.
The sad truth of the matter was that there wasn't anything really important in her life. Not in the way that niggling dream was telling her.
Maybe it was time to go back to therapy. Or visit a psychic. Or start taking sleeping pills. Something.
Rai dug tiny needle-claws into her hand, informing her that the petting had stopped, and why had the petting stopped? An obedient human, Lily stroked the downy head again, until the claws relaxed.
A deep voice above her, filled with laughter, broke her concentration on the tiny animal. "You, Lily Malkin, are a miracle."
"Me?" Surprise made her voice rise, making the word even more of a question, but she kept her attention focused on the kitten, afraid to startle it and ruin the progress they had made. She felt like many things right now, but none of them were miraculous.
"You, yeah. Three years ago, just looking at a cat made you break into a cold sweat. Now?" Ronnie, the director of the Felidae No-Kill shelter, sat down on the floor next to Lily, where a pair of inquisitive kittens immediately pounced on her. The two women were in the middle of the "socialization" room, a space filled with climbing trees, catnip mice and rope netsand almost a dozen cats and kittens in various stages of sociability. "And now? Now you're our very own 'cat whisperer.'"
Lily made a face. She hated that nickname, and "cat talker" and "cat lady" and all the other terms the other volunteers and media people had stuck on her. But there didn't seem to be any way to get rid of it, now.
It was ironic, really. Despite her last name having a traditional, if unfortunate connection to cats, from the time she was a child being around cats had made her uneasy both physically and emotionally. Physically, she got dizzy, sweaty palmed and nauseated. Emotionally she had nightmares triggered by something as simple as hearing a cat meow.
Despite that, cats still seemed drawn to her, climbing in her lap and weaving in and out of her legs at the slightest chance.
"It's because you're scared and sit so still," people had told her, as though that made it all right. And, in truth, she had alwaysfrom a distanceadmired cats, with their easy strides and poised gracefulness, and the way they could curl up, nose, toes and tail, and be instantly comfortable anywhere. But the unease kept growing, to the point where she could not visit homes of friends with cats, or even watch a cat-food commercial on television without changing the channel.
Over the years, that unease had transferred to people, too. She watched them the same way she watched cats, wondering what they wanted from her, what they expected, and when their demands would overwhelm and consume her.
It wasn't rational, but nothing Lily had read about phobias over the years indicated that rational thought was involved.
When she had moved to Newfield three years before, it had been with the plan to make a new start after the collapse of yet another relationship, her fourth since graduating college. This time, she had told herself, she would not make the same mistakes. New town. New start. Except that she didn't know how to begin.
Her problems had started with catsshe thought maybe she could start there, and work her way up to people. A helpful therapist and a lot of pep talks had gotten her to the door of the Felidae No-Kill shelter, meaning simply to volunteer in the front office, maybe greet people when they came in, help maintain their Web site, or
It hadn't quite worked out that way. The fact that she was where she was, the ranking volunteer with the most responsibility
Maybe Ronnie was right. Some days even she could barely remember the person she had been the first time she set foot in the doorway two and a half years ago; shaky, sweaty and ready to pass out at the sight of the first inquiring whisker. It had been that much of a change.
With cats, anyway. Lily still had trouble with really connecting to people beyond casual friendships and working relationships.
But she didn't speak cat, or have any kind of supernatural connection with them, the way some people seemed to think. Cats were just easy to understand. The things they wanted were simple: scratching, and feeding, and a warm place to sleep and to be left alone when they were enjoying all those things.
People? People always wanted more, and they never seemed able to just come right out and ask.
"I think this guy's going to be ready to adopt soon," was all she said, lifting the tabby and putting him next to a large orange tom named Willikers, who promptly started grooming the kitten. "And he'd be fine in a house with older cats. Maybe even a dog, if he was used to cats." Talking about catsand their adoption chanceswas easier than talking about herself.
"I'll note that on his chart," Ronnie said, accepting the change of subject. "In the meanwhile, you should try to scrape off some of that cat hair. There's someone here to see you."
"Me?" Again, her voice rose, this time almost to a squeak. Maybe that was what she needed to work on next, not sounding so anxious when people noticed her.
Her boss nodded, absently petting the calico she had chosen. "Your faithful mechanical Mountie just stomped in, looking for you."
Oh, Lily thought. Then, uh-oh. She knew what that meant.
Resigned, Lily stood up and brushed without much hope at the denim of her jeans. She had quickly learned not to wear wool or corduroy at the shelter, but cat hair could stick to anything, and with the multicolored cats they were currently housing, there wasn't a color you could wear that wouldn't show the inevitably shed fur. Giving up, she gave her cotton sweater a tug, ran her fingers through her hair to get the overlong curls off her face and went out of the glass-enclosed socialization room and into the lobby.
Two men were waiting for her. One was an older man, craggy-faced, wearing casual slacks, a button-down shirt and a gray blazer that had seen better years.
"Detective Petrosian." Formal in the presence of a stranger, for all that they had known each other for two years now.
AggieAugustusPetrosian looked up, and Lily knew for certain that she wasn't going to want to hear what he had to say. It was going to be worse than her usual calls, which were more along the lines of removing a litter of kittens from the inner walls of a building that was being torn down, or getting someone's illegal petlast month it had been a half-grown ocelotout of an apartment without anyone getting bitten. When he showed up with those sorts of problems, Aggie never looked as grim as he did right now.
"Lily. Thank you."
She smiled at him. He always said that, as though she was going to hide in the backroom and pretend he wasn't there.
"Lily Malkin, this" and he indicated the man next to him "is Special Agent Jon T. Patrick. He's with the feds. Visiting us here in the burbs to help out on a case."
"Patrick" as a surname sounded as Irish as it got. This guy, Lily thought immediately, wasn't even remotely Irish; not unless they had packed up and colonized somewhere more exotic when history wasn't looking. Intense black eyes looked out from deep-set sockets. Those rather amazing eyes, emphasized by a thick, short cap of black-and-gray curls above and the high brace of cheekbones below, were all you saw at first. Lips were thin, ears ordinary and skin a soft golden tan that gave her the urgebrieflyto lean forward and find out what he smelled like. Sandalwood, she thought, without knowing what sandalwood actually smelled like.
Oh. Also, oh. If she were a shallow woman, her mouth would be watering right about now.
All right, so she was a shallow woman on occasion. It wasn't a crime.
He looked her up and down and then directly in the eyes, and the intensity of that gaze felt as though he was undressing her almost casually, as though he had the right to do so. That kind of arrogance pissed her off, so she stared back at him, daring him to continue. At least she had been discreet in her observation.
You're not that hot, pal, she thought, now annoyed by how quickly she had responded to him. It hadn't been that long since she'd All right, maybe it had. That was still no reason to react like a tabby in heat.
Detective Petrosian finished the introductions quickly, as though he sensed the undercurrents. "Agent Patrick, this is Lily Malkin. Lily's our local cat expert."
Her lips quirked at Aggie's words, despite her irritation. Between him and Ronnie She wasn't any kind of expert, really, just cheaper and easier to get hold of than any specialist they could afford to hire, even if one were available. Newfield was a small city, as cities went, and they had an equally small budget to cover a lot of far more urgent needs.
Agent Patrick didn't seem too impressed, by either her or her credentials or his surroundings. His gaze was still on her, but it had become a polite, indifferent look, and his mouthtoo thin, she decided, and not to her tastewas held flat, as though he was biting back a comment.
So much for her federal rating, she thought. He probably preferred athletic blondes. Not that he was her type eithershe preferred her dates to be a little less obviously high-maintenance.
Agent Patrick did dress well, though. Or maybe that was in contrast to Aggie's familiarly rumpled selfthe gray suit and white shirt was probably issued in bulk at FBI headquarters, but it fit Agent Patrick's tall but solid form, and his tie was not the usual power red, but a dark gray-on-gray pattern that was both stylish and surprisingly soothing.
The agent hadn't looked away from her yet, despite his disapproval, and Lily felt the back of her neck prickle under that steady regard. He needed to blink, at least. If she had been one of her four-legged charges, she might have hissed and arched her back to look more fearsome and drive him away.
"Lil." Petrosian was speaking again. "Lily, I'm sorry, but I gotta ask you to do something ugly."
Her attention left the fed and narrowed to the expression on Aggie's face: regretful, but determined. She had been right. Whatever it was, it was going to be bad, especially if a federal agent was along. Lily had no idea what she might be able to help with, at that level, but she trusted Aggie Petrosian as much as she trusted anyone. He was, maybe, the only person she truly did trust. He asked of her only what he asked, and nothing more. No hidden agendas waiting in the shadows. He had always been up front with her. Like a cat. And because of that, if he needed her to do something, she would do it. It was that simple.
Even if it meant being in the company of this Agent Rude-stare Patrick.
SpecialAgent Jon T. Patrick wasn't usually so obvious when he checked someone out; contrary to popular opinion, the bureau did install some couth and control in their people. And his mother would have slapped him over the sofa if he was rude to a woman. But from the way this womanMs. Lily Malkinwas shying away from him, he'd been both obvious and obnoxious about it.