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Paige Pfeiffer Ran At The Front Of The pack, setting a pace that a less bold thirty-nine-year old might not dare, but she had a point to prove and a bet to win. The bet involved dinner at Bernie's Béarnaise, central Vermont's most chichi restaurant. The point was that a woman her age who was in shape could easily beat a woman half her age who wasn't. At stake was the respect of the Mount Court Academy girls' varsity cross-country team, of which she was head coach for the fifth year in a row.
The race had become a tradition, albeit a predictable one. For the first of the three miles, the girls tossed cocky comments from one to the next. The comments waned during the second mile, which wove through a path in the woods and grew demanding of teenage bodies that had spent the summer indulging in the luxuries of the rich. Back on the road for the third mile, the pack thinned. Laboring runners fell behind. Only the stars of the team stayed with Paige.
There were six stars this year. Five of them had run for her the year before. The other was new to the school.
"How we doin'?" Paige asked of the group, and heard gasping complaints. Feeling wicked, she smiled. "Let's pick it up." She moved easily ahead of the others. Three moved with her. Minutes later, when she increased the pace again, only one remained. It was the new girl, so quiet up to that point that Paige knew little more than that her name was Sara Dickinson. Paige was surprised by her stamina. She was doubly surprised when, with a surge of speed, the girl took the lead.
Paige had to work to stay withher as they turned in under the wrought-iron arch that marked the school's entrance, and for a minute she wondered if indeed she were past her prime. When the thought of that rankled, she dug deep inside and found the wherewithal to draw even. Shoulder to shoulder they ran, down the long drive cordoned with tall oaks whose leaves were a ripe September green. Without missing a beat, they veered off onto the dirt path that cut to the field house.
"You're good," Paige breathed with a look at the girl beside her. She was tall for her age, had a lithe build, a comfortable stride, and a look of concentration that was nothing if not stern.
As Paige watched in darting glances, that concentration suddenly shifted, and in the space of seconds she was alone. Sara had reversed direction and was walking, winded but intent, toward the shrubbery edging the path. One by one, the others joined her there.
Paige made a wide turn and, slowing to a cooldown pace, headed back. In various stages of breathlessness, the girls were grouped around Sara, who was crouched beside a spreading yew. It was a minute before Paige saw what was beneath the bottommost branch.
"It's so tiny.
"Whose is it?"
"How did it get here?"
Forgetting the race, Paige knelt down. She took the kitten, which was orange and gray and mewling piteously, in her hand and asked Sara, "How did you ever spot it hidden this way?"
"Something moved," Sara said, and the chorus resumed.
"It doesn't belong here. Mount Court only has dogs."
"Someone must have snuck it in "
"Then abandoned it."
"It looks starved."
Paige was thinking the same and wondering what could be done, when all eyes turned her way.
"We can't leave it here."
"It'll die, it's so little."
"That'd be cruel."
"You'll have to take it, Dr. Pfeiffer."
Paige pictured her overstuffed home. "I don't have room for a pet. I don't have time for one."
"Cats are easy. They take care of themselves."
"You keep it," Paige countered.
"It's against dorm rules."
Paige had coached at Mount Court long enough to know that breaking the rules was a way of life, and while she certainly didn't condone it, she was amused. "Against dorm rules? What else is new?"
"The Head, that's what."
"He's an asshole."
"He expelled two guys on the second day of school."
"For what?" Paige asked, overlooking foul language for the sake of goodwill.
"There was no warning, nothing."
"He's totally anal."
"We're talking crack-down city "
"Mount Court Penitentiary."
Paige hadn't met the new Head yet and was picturing something with horns when the pleading resumed.
"Take the kitten, Dr. Pfeiffer."
"It'll die if you don't."
"Do you want that on your conscience?"
Paige stroked the tiny creature, which was little more than a handful of fur and bones, and trembling at that. "I'm being manipulated."
"It's for a good cause," one of the girls said.
Paige shot her a chiding look. "It's for a good cause" was what she always said when she pushed the girls for an extra campus loop. "But I don't know where to begin," she protested, a mistake if ever there was one because the words were barely out of her mouth when she was barraged with advice on food, litter, and housing. Ten minutes later she found herself in her car with the kitten in a cardboard box on the seat beside her.
"Only until I find it a home," she warned out the window as she drove off and, determined to do just that, headed straight into town. She pulled up at the police station, intent on presenting the kitten to the animal officer, but he was gone for the day. So she left him a note and tried the General Store. The family who owned it had cats. They had lots of cats. She didn't figure another would make a difference, especially one so tiny.