Kathleen Paulson is snowed under running her library and caring for her extraordinary felines, Owen and Hercules. But when a holiday fund-raiser turns deadly, she’ll have to add sleuthing to her already full schedule...
Winter in Mayville Heights is busy and not just because of the holidays. Kathleen is hard at work organizing a benefit to raise money for the library’s popular Reading Buddies program. She has her hands full hosting the event. And when a guest at the gala drops dead, her magical cats, Owen and Hercules, will have their paws full helping her solve a murder.
The victim is the ex of town rascal Burtis Chapman, but she hasn’t lived in the area in years. And though everybody is denying knowledge of why she was back in town, as Kathleen and her detective boyfriend, Marcus, begin nosing around, they discover more people are connected to the deceased than claimed to be. Now Marcus, Kathleen, and her uncanny cats have to unravel this midwinter tale before the case gets cold.
About the Author
Sofie Kelly is a New York Times bestselling author and mixed-media artist who lives on the East Coast with her husband and daughter. She writes the New York Times bestselling Magical Cats mysteries and, as Sofie Ryan, writes the New York Times bestselling Second Chance Cat mysteries.
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“I look like Fred the Funky Chicken’s mother,” Rebecca said. And because she was so kind, she immediately added, “And it’s not that I don’t like bright yellow chickens . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“You just don’t want to look like a giant version of Owen’s favorite catnip treat on your wedding day,” I finished. Owen was one of my two cats. Rebecca, whose house backed on mine, kept him supplied with catnip chickens, which he loved, much to the annoyance of his brother, Hercules, who didn’t get the attraction of catnip or neon yellow chickens.
I held the phone out to Roma so she could see the photo of Rebecca in the potential wedding dress, a buttercup yellow ball gown with a huge skirt of chiffon feathers. Rebecca was dwarfed by the dress. I was several inches taller, and I could see that it would have engulfed me, too.
“It’s not you,” Roma agreed. “But don’t worry. We’ll find you something.” Roma was one of my closest friends in Mayville Heights and a very positive person.
“This wedding is turning into shredded wheat,” Rebecca said, fingering the soft blue scarf around her neck.
I smiled in sympathy across the small table at Eric’s Place, our favorite restaurant. I knew Rebecca would have been happy to elope.
Roma frowned and looked from Rebecca to me. “Excuse me?”
“Shredded wheat,” I repeated. “The more you chew on it, the bigger it seems to get.”
Roma laughed and reached for her coffee. “Rebecca, I promise we’ll find you a dress that has nothing to do with breakfast cereal or giant yellow birds.”
Rebecca smiled across the table at us. “I don’t know what I’d do without the two of you.” She smoothed a hand over her silver-gray hair. She’d cut it herself—Rebecca had been a hairdresser for more than forty years—into a little gamin pixie that showed off her beautiful cheekbones and her blue eyes.
Rebecca Nixon wasn’t just my backyard neighbor, she was also the first friend I’d made when I’d come to Mayville Heights to supervise the renovation of the town’s library. In a couple of weeks she was going to marry her childhood sweetheart, Everett Henderson. And she still didn’t have a wedding dress.
I handed the phone back across the table to her. She looked at the photo again and gave a soft sigh. “Ami means well,” she said. “It’s just that she seems to have caught wedding fever from Everett.”
Ami was Everett Henderson’s only grandchild. She’d been close to Rebecca, whom she lovingly called Rebbie, for most of her life and she was overjoyed about the wedding. Rebecca and Everett had waited close to fifty years to be married, and Everett was determined to give her an elaborate celebration—whether or not she wanted it. And she didn’t.
I reached over and laid my hand on Rebecca’s arm. “My offer still stands,” I said, raising one eyebrow at her. Several months ago when Everett had been talking about having the wedding in The Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis—which technically wasn’t possible since neither he nor Rebecca was Catholic—I’d jokingly told Rebecca I’d be happy to help her “kidnap” Everett and elope. “I have a full tank of gas in the truck and I’m betting Roma has a roll of duct tape in her bag.”
“I do,” Roma said. “But if you’re planning on making a wedding dress, you should know there’s only about half the roll left.”
“You know, I bet Maggie could make you a wedding dress out of duct tape,” I said, reaching for my coffee.
Maggie Adams was my closest friend in Mayville Heights, along with Roma. She was a mixed-media collage artist and potter; plus she taught tai chi. Mayville Heights had a thriving artists’ community. Maggie was the current president of the artists’ co-op and the most creative person I’d ever met. She’d made an incredibly realistic, life-size replica of Minnesota Wild hockey player Eddie Sweeney as part of a display for last year’s Winterfest celebration, and it had indirectly led to Roma’s current relationship with the real Eddie Sweeney. I had no doubt that Maggie could make Rebecca a wedding dress out of duct tape, or recycled newspaper, for that matter.
“If I don’t find a dress soon, I may have to get her to do that,” Rebecca said. She glanced down at the image of the funky chicken ball gown one more time and then tucked her phone in her purse. “Although I don’t think it would go with Everett’s plans.”
“If the wedding is still too elaborate, tell him,” I said.
Roma nodded in agreement. “Everett would marry you on an iceberg in the middle of the Bering Sea. He loves you. He just wants you to be happy.”
Rebecca had told me once that while she’d dreamed of being married to Everett, she’d never thought about the actual wedding. She didn’t care about flowers or food. Everett, on the other hand, wanted a celebration. He wanted the whole world to know how he felt about his bride, although you only had to spend a minute or two with both of them to see it. They made me believe in happily ever after.
“I know he would,” Rebecca said, tracing the rim of her coffee cup with one finger. “But all this . . . hoopla is important to him. He already agreed to scale his original plans back for me. I know he wants me to be happy, but I want him to be happy, too.”
“I know what you mean,” Roma said softly. She got the starry-eyed, slightly goofy look on her face that told me she was thinking about Eddie.
Over at the counter, waiter Nic Sutton looked our way and gestured at the coffeepot. I nodded. He reached for the glass carafe and headed in our direction.
“Thanks, Nic,” I said after he’d refilled our mugs.
“Could I get you anything else?” he asked. We’d made short work of three of Eric’s pecan sticky buns. I was tempted to have another, but in a couple of hours I was going to have to squeeze into a very formfitting dress, so I shook my head.
The library was hosting an evening fundraiser at the Stratton Theatre for our Reading Buddies program, which paired kindergartners with fourth and fifth graders to help foster a love of reading and improve their actual reading skills. The stage had been dressed to resemble a French bistro, with several local businesses providing elegant desserts. In a wonderful twist of coincidence, Eddie Sweeney’s college roommate was the leader and saxophone player in a jazz quartet, Jazzology. They were providing the “atmosphere.” Eddie was very generously—and quietly—covering their expenses.
“Roma, do you have plans for tomorrow night?” I asked as I added cream and sugar to my cup. I’d taken Friday night off to relax after the fundraising gala, but I was happy to give that up to help Rebecca find a dress.
“Paperwork and pizza,” she said, tucking her sleek dark brown hair behind one ear. “But I’m open to a better idea. Or any other idea.”
I smiled at Rebecca. “Let Roma and me take you shopping tomorrow night. Here in town or maybe over in Red Wing.”
“Please,” Roma added. “I don’t want to do paperwork all night.”
A smile stretched across Rebecca’s face. “Thank you. Yes. I don’t think I can do this without help.”
“I’ll drive,” Roma offered. She looked at Rebecca. “I’ll pick you up about quarter to seven.” She glanced at me. “And then we’ll come get you.”
I nodded. Roma’s SUV was a better choice than the three of us squashed onto the front seat of my old truck.
The front door of Eric’s Place swung open then and Lita Clarke stepped inside, pushing back the hood of her jacket. The red wool reminded me of the autumn leaves on the maple tree in Rebecca’s backyard. I felt a little twinge of sadness. I was going to miss Rebecca when she moved into Everett’s downtown apartment.
Lita smiled when she caught sight of us, stamped her feet on the mat by the door to shake the snow off her boots and then headed over.
“Kathleen, I’m glad I caught you,” she said. She pulled off her black woolen gloves, took an envelope from her purse and handed it to me. My name was written on the front in her tight, angular script. “Everett wanted you to have this.”
I lifted the flap of the envelope. There was a check inside made out to me. I looked uncertainly at Lita. “What’s this for?” I asked.
“For tomorrow,” she said. “Everett said he knows you’ll take Vincent Starr out to lunch after his presentation and he didn’t want you to use your own money.”
Everett knew me well. I was planning on taking the rare-book dealer to lunch after his presentation at the library Friday morning.
Vincent Starr was an expert on American literature and children’s books. We’d met when Abigail Pierce, one of my staff at the library, found a rare and valuable early edition of Alice in Wonderland in a box of books donated for the library’s fundraising yard sale my first summer in town.
Vincent and Abigail had stayed in touch. For the past month he’d been working at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, curating a collection of late-nineteenth-century children’s literature that was going on display at the art museum. He’d agreed to come and give a talk about rare books. Abigail, who had been to one of Vincent’s lectures, promised he was an entertaining speaker. He was also a big supporter of projects for children’s literacy and he’d offered to come to the Reading Buddies fundraiser to mingle and talk about books.
I reached for my purse and tucked the envelope inside. “Please thank Everett for me,” I said to Lita. “And thank you for delivering it.”
“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said, peeling off her other glove and stuffing them both into one of the pockets of her duffle coat. “I was coming out anyway. Our coffeemaker died and Everett doesn’t work well uncaffeinated.”
“Neither do I,” I said with a grin.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rebecca roll hers. She thought I drank a bit too much coffee. I thought there was no such thing as too much coffee.
“Is everything set for tonight?” Lita asked.
I nodded. “Everything’s ready,” I said. “Wait until you see the stage. You’ll think Maggie and Ruby somehow transported a Parisian street to Minnesota.”
I had my fingers crossed that the gala would raise enough money to expand Reading Buddies. The program had turned out to have benefits I had never anticipated. I’d seen the little ones blossom under the attention of the older kids, and many of the older ones had developed a strong sense of maturity and responsibility toward their little students.
“Everyone’s looking forward to this,” she said, loosening the red-and-black scarf at her neck. She smiled. “I better get back to the office. If you need anything, call me there or on my cell.”
“I will,” I said, returning the smile.
“See you tonight,” Lita said to all three of us before heading for the counter, where Nic had just started a new pot of coffee.
I watched her weave her way around the tables and wondered if Lita would show up alone, or with Burtis Chapman. Lita and the burly “entrepreneur” had been quietly seeing each other for several months. I’d only figured it out because I’d seen them in a close moment in the library parking lot. Lita and Burtis were very different. She’d worked for Everett for years. Burtis had a number of small businesses. Rumor had it that some of them danced on the edge of being legal.
I was surprised that they had managed to keep their relationship quiet. It wasn’t easy to keep a secret in Mayville Heights; the town was so small. And in Lita’s case she seemed to be related, one way or another, to pretty much everyone in town.
“Rebecca, how long has Lita been Everett’s assistant?” I asked.
“Ever since he came back to Mayville Heights for good,” she said. “Lita was very young when she was married—and divorced. She wanted to stay here and raise her girls, and Everett needed an assistant who knew the town as much as he needed someone who was organized and efficient. That was Lita to a tee.”
“Is it just my imagination or is Lita pretty much related to everyone in Mayville Heights?”
Roma laughed as she set down her mug. “It’s not your imagination.”
Rebecca leaned back in her chair, nodding in agreement. “Her mother’s family and her father’s family were the first non–Native American settlers here. Only the Blackthornes have been here longer. Half the town is cousin to Lita on her father’s side and the other half is related through her mother. I think the only people she’s not related to are the Chapmans, and that’s just because Chapman men tend to marry women from somewhere else and bring them back here.” She laughed. “Which is a good thing or we’d all be our own grandparents.”
“What about you?” I said. Across the room Eric had just come out of the kitchen carrying a large stainless steel thermos.
“We’re cousins about half a dozen times removed through our mothers,” Rebecca said. “On the Hale side of the family.”
Roma glanced at her watch. “You know that Oren and I are second cousins.”
“Well, we’re cousins with Lita somehow on the Villier side of the family, her father’s ancestors.” She reached for her scarf on the back of her chair. “As much as I’d like to sit here, I should get back to the clinic.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door to the café swing open and a well-dressed woman step inside. I knew immediately that she was, as my friend Harry Taylor would put it, from away. She was wearing beautiful high-heeled, black leather boots. They seemed molded to her long legs—no room for a pile lining for warmth—and the very high heels weren’t practical for navigating snowbanks. I’d learned that the hard way my first winter in town.
I looked down at my warm, lace-up footwear. My boots might not have been trendsetters, but my feet were warm and dry.
I glanced at the woman again. She had the collar of her elegant coat turned up against the side of her face, and her shoulders were hunched as though she was cold.
Rebecca turned her head, probably to see what I was looking at. She put one hand, palm down, on the table and some of the color seemed to drain from her face.
“Oh my word,” she said softly. “It can’t be.”
I put my hand on the older woman’s arm. “Is something wrong?”
She let out a breath. “I’m not sure.”
Roma shot me a worried glance. “Rebecca, do you know that woman?” she asked.
Rebecca nodded. “I do,” she said. “That’s Dayna Chapman, Burtis Chapman’s wife.”
“Dayna Chapman?” I repeated. “Burtis Chapman’s wife?”
“Yes,” Rebecca said, her gaze locked on the woman making her way toward the counter and Lita. “Ex-wife.”
Two frown lines appeared between Roma’s eyes. “Rebecca, are you all right?” she asked.
Rebecca shook her head and turned back toward us. “I’m sorry,” she said, reaching up to give Roma’s hand a squeeze. “Seeing Dayna was a little like seeing a ghost for a moment. She hasn’t been back here in more than twenty years.”
“I wonder what brought her back now,” Roma said as she shrugged on her jacket.
“I was thinking the same thing.” Rebecca’s eyes darted over to the counter again where Lita, still holding the thermos Eric had brought from the kitchen, was now talking to Burtis’s ex-wife.
The normally unflappable Lita was uncomfortable with the conversation, I realized. I could tell from the rigid way she held herself, shoulders stiff under her heavy jacket, back as straight as a metal signpost.
“I’d better get going,” Roma said, pulling on her gloves. “I’ll see you tonight. I think it’ll be fun.”
“I hope so,” I said. “If you talk to Eddie please thank him again for me.”
“I will.” She smiled at Rebecca. “Thank you for the coffee break,” she said, and then she headed for the door.
I reached for my own coat, noticing that Rebecca had darted another glance in Dayna and Lita’s direction. “You know, don’t you?” I said.
Rebecca focused all her attention on me. Her blue eyes searched my face. I waited for her to ask, “Know what?” After a moment she smiled and said, “How long have you known?”
“Since the fall.”
“Lita is a good person,” Rebecca said, pulling on her hat, a soft rose cloche. “This last year is the happiest I’ve seen her in a long time.”
Burtis and Lita had been a couple for the last year? How had they managed to keep that quiet?
“I like Lita,” I said, patting my pockets for my gloves. “And I like Burtis.”
It was true. The library renovations, which had originally brought me to town, would have been a lot more frustrating without Lita to answer all of my questions. And I considered Burtis a friend. We’d gotten to know each other after I discovered the body of Roma’s biological father, Tom Karlsson, out at Wisteria Hill, the old Henderson family homestead.
“I can’t help wondering what she’s doing here now,” Rebecca said, reaching for her purse and the check.
“Maybe she’s here for the fundraiser or Vincent Starr’s lecture tomorrow,” I said.
“It’s possible,” she said, but the tone of her voice said she didn’t really think so.
I leaned over and gave her a hug. “Thank you for this.”
“You are so welcome,” she said with a smile. “Thank you for offering to help me find a wedding dress.”
“When is Ami coming?” I asked, putting the strap of my own bag over my shoulder.
“The day before the wedding, as soon as her exams are finished.”
Everett’s granddaughter was studying music at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. She was Rebecca’s maid of honor.
“I’m looking forward to meeting your brother,” I said. Rebecca’s older brother, Stephen, was going to walk her down the aisle. Their other brother had died several years ago. “What’s he like?”
Rebecca laughed. “Our mother always said that Stephen and I were as different as chalk and cheese, but I think you’ll like him. He used to spend a lot of time at the library. He loves books.”
“Now I have two reasons to like him.”
“What’s the other reason?” she asked, cocking her head to one side, the gleam in her eye telling me she already knew the answer to her own question.
“He has excellent taste in sisters,” I said.
She nodded. “I’ve been telling him that for years.”
I grinned at her.
“I’m glad Stephen is coming to the wedding,” Rebecca said, “but I really don’t need to be ‘given away.’ For heaven’s sake, it’s not like I’m an old chest of drawers that someone found in the attic.” She sighed. “But the tradition is important to Everett.”
“When my mother and father got married—the second time—I walked her down the aisle,” I said.
My parents had been married, divorced and then remarried after figuring out that living without each other was worse than living with each other.
“The minister asked, ‘Who brings this woman to be married?’ and I said I did.”
“I like the sound of that,” Rebecca said.
I didn’t add that at one point a couple of my parents’ friends had floated the idea that I put my hand on my mother’s hugely pregnant abdomen at the front of the church and answer the minister’s question with “her children do,” since the twins, my brother, Ethan, and sister, Sara, couldn’t speak for themselves.
Mom and Dad knew that I was already cringing with embarrassment over the incontrovertible evidence that they’d been “seeing” each other, unbeknownst to everyone including me, and let the suggestion sink without comment.
“I know you wish Matthew could be here,” I said.
Matthew Nixon was Rebecca’s only child, but he was a geologist looking for oil deposits in northern Canada. Rebecca nodded, brushing a strand of hair off her face. “I do,” she said. “But it’s just too far and getting out of Izok Lake isn’t easy this time of year.”
She leaned over and patted my cheek. “But I have Ami and you and Roma and all of my friends. And did I tell you that darling Ruby is going to make a video of the ceremony so I can send it to Matthew?”
“That’s a great idea,” I said. Ruby Blackthorne was a good friend and a talented artist. I glanced at my watch as I pulled the sleeve of my jacket down over my heavy woolen gloves.
“I’ll see you tonight,” Rebecca said, her grin giving me a glimpse of the young girl she once was. “Roma’s right. It’s going to be fun.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I’ll see you later.” I raised a hand in good-bye to Eric, who was still at the counter, and headed out.
It was cold outside. The air was sharp and dry, but it wasn’t snowing and there wasn’t a cloud in the deep blue sky arcing overhead. I walked quickly back to the library, my breath making me look like a train engine chugging along the sidewalk.
Mary Lowe was at the front desk when I walked in. Since it was December she was wearing one of her many Christmas sweaters. This one was white and a deep forest green with a couple of reindeer heads grinning at me, one on either side of the quarter-size green buttons. There was a little bulb at the end of each reindeer’s nose that glowed red thanks to a battery pack in one of the sweater’s pockets. The sweater made me smile every time Mary wore it. She smiled now and handed me a stack of messages. I sorted through them. Nothing was urgent.
“How was your coffee break?” she asked.
“Delicious,” I said. “I think Eric has perfected his sticky buns.”
“That sounds good,” she said, reaching back to set four picture books on one of the book carts. “Abigail is shelving and Susan is setting up for tomorrow in the conference room.”
“If you can handle things here for a little longer, I’ll put my coat in my office and give her a hand.”
“Go ahead,” Mary said. “It won’t get busy until school lets out and all the kids in Anne Stinson’s history class show up because they finally figured out that she wasn’t joking when she said they have to use ‘real’ books to write their term paper.” She laughed. “The same thing happened last year.”
“Mia will be here to help,” I said. “She was in that class last year.” Mia was our co-op student from the high school.
Mary held up a hand. “I almost forgot. Burtis brought over one of his big coffeemakers and four dozen coffee cups for tomorrow. He said if you need more cups to give him a call.”
One of Burtis Chapman’s businesses was large tent rentals. He could also supply booths if you were having some kind of trade show, or dishes for a wedding reception. He was loaning us the coffeepot and cups Mary had mentioned. I wondered if he knew his ex-wife was in town.
Mary narrowed her gaze at me. “What is it?” she asked.
I gave my head a shake. “Nothing.”
“That’s not your ‘nothing’ face,” she said. “Don’t worry about tonight, Kathleen, or tomorrow, for that matter. You’ve thought of everything.”
“It’s not that,” I said, loosening the scarf at my throat. “I was actually thinking about Burtis. When we were at Eric’s, his ex-wife came in.”
“Dayna Chapman just walked into Eric’s?”
Her eyebrows rose and her mouth pulled to one side. “Well, that’s a surprise.”
“Rebecca said she hasn’t been back in twenty years.”
Mary nodded. “It’s been all of that.” She gave me a wry smile. “You know, there was a lot of loose talk when Dayna left.”
I pulled off my scarf and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. “What do you mean?” I asked.
She patted her gray curls, fixed firmly in place with the heavy-duty hair spray she favored. “One day she was here. The next she was just gone. You know how people are.”
“People actually though Burtis might have done something to his wife?”
“He does have a reputation.”
The phone rang then. I gestured in the direction of the conference room with the message slips Mary had given me. “I’m just going to take a quick look.”
Mary nodded and reached for the receiver.
The coffeemaker was set up on a long table in front of the windows. Burtis had arranged the cups and saucers in neat rows. He’d also brought spoons and a large, insulated stainless steel carafe that we could use for hot water for tea.
Burtis Chapman was built like an oversize hockey goalie. I’d heard all the stories and rumors about his being the area bootlegger and running some high-stakes and very illegal poker games. And I’d found him intimidating before I got to know the man. But now that I did know Burtis, I also knew he was an ethical man. It was just that those ethics were part of his own personal code, which sometimes put him at odds with the rest of the world. I was surprised that anyone who really knew the man would ever have thought he’d have done anything to his ex-wife.
I walked back over to the desk. Mary had started checking in a stack of picture books.
“Mary, did you know Dayna Chapman?” I asked.
“Not well,” she said, turning to put another book on the half-full cart behind her. “Nobody really did. She wasn’t in town that long.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”
I shrugged. “I only got a quick look at the woman, but—”
“She didn’t look like Burtis’s type,” Mary finished. She didn’t miss much.
“I shouldn’t make assumptions,” I said.
“You’re not. Burtis and Dayna were a classic case of opposites attracting.” She straightened her sweater so the reindeers were nose to bright red nose. “I wonder why she’s back here now, after all this time.”
“Maybe she missed her kids, or Mayville Heights.” I held up both hands. “Maybe after so many years she missed Burtis.”
Mary gave a snort of laughter. Then her expression grew serious. “You know, no one really knows why that marriage ended. Burtis wasn’t talking and no one was ever foolhardy enough to ask him.”
She took a small, square picture book from the pile at her elbow. A handful of Cheerios bounced onto the counter from between the pages.
“At least it’s not peanut butter and marshmallow fluff,” I said with a smile, and headed for the stairs.
I returned all the phone calls and sent a couple of texts. Everything was running smoothly. Vincent Starr was checked into a beautiful bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of the library and the Stratton Theatre. Abigail, who had found the edition of Alice in Wonderland that had originally brought us into contact with Vincent, was taking him to dinner before the gala at the Stratton.
Maggie and Ruby Blackthorne had done an incredible job of turning the Stratton Theatre into a Parisian bistro and managed to do it under budget. I’d walked over before lunch and I’d found myself at a loss for words at the sight of all their work. Mags and Ruby had donated all their time and managed to borrow most of the design elements.
The rest of the afternoon was busy. As Mary had predicted, nearly every student from Anne Stinson’s history class showed up after school and stood, bewildered, annoyed or a bit of both in front of the nonfiction section. The seniors’ reading club arrived en masse to register at the last minute for Ruby’s bookmaking workshop on Saturday, and Thorsten delivered three cartons of old first- and second-grade readers that he and Oren Kenyon had found in a cubbyhole at the community center. Vincent Starr had offered to look at the books to determine if they might be worth anything. The community center needed a new roof and I was hoping there might be something valuable about their old books.
We closed the building at four thirty because of the fundraiser. I double-checked the conference room before I left and made one more trip back up to the staff room to make sure we had everything we needed for morning.
Susan was waiting for me by the front door, bundled into her red, down-filled coat. “Everything’s done, Kathleen,” she said. “I put a few more chairs in the conference room and ran the vacuum around in there.”
“You are an angel,” I said as I hurried across the floor to her.
“Yes, I am,” she replied, grinning at me. “Now let’s get out of here. I have to get home and make myself even more beautiful than I already am.”
I set the alarm, locked the doors and we headed for the parking lot. It was cold, but it wasn’t snowing and the sky was clear overhead.
“It’s going to be a great night,” Susan said. She’d pulled the brim of her hat down and turned the collar of her coat up, so all I could see was her eyes, sparkling behind her black cat’s-eye glasses.
“I hope you’re right,” I said. “I’ll see you later.”
She made a sweeping gesture with her right hand. “Prepare to be dazzled.”
A bit of snow had blown onto my windshield. I brushed it off before I slid onto the driver’s seat of my truck. The truck was old and an ugly brown color, like the bottom of a mud puddle, but it ran well and it had a great heater. Harry Taylor Senior had loaned me the truck and then given it to me outright after he’d found his daughter, Elizabeth. I had retrieved some documents that had helped the old man in his search for her, and the truck was his way of saying thank you.
I drove up Mountain Road thinking I’d warm up the last of the chicken noodle soup I’d made on the weekend for supper. That would give me a bit of extra time to spend with the cats before I had to get ready for the gala. Owen and Hercules had been out of sorts the past couple of days. If I hadn’t known better, I would have said that they were miffed because they weren’t going to the gala. The boys, brothers I’d had since they followed me home, weren’t exactly your everyday, run-of-the-mill house cats. Sometimes I had to remind myself that they weren’t people, either, even though they seemed to think they were.
I parked in the driveway and headed around the house to the back porch, mentally going over everything I needed to do before I headed back down the hill to the Stratton.
My foot was on the bottom riser of the porch stairs when I heard it. Exactly what the noise was, I wasn’t sure. All I could tell was that there was some kind of god-awful sound coming from my kitchen.
I knew it was stupid to go inside when I didn’t know what was in there, but Owen and Hercules were in the house. It sounded as though there was some kind of injured animal inside with them. I hesitated, and then I heard what I clearly knew was a yowl from Owen.
Fumbling with my keys, I got the porch door unlocked and dropped my purse and briefcase on the bench under the side window. I grabbed the broom that I’d used that morning to clear a dusting of snow off the steps. I had no idea what was in my kitchen or how it had gotten into my house, but whatever was terrorizing my cats was about to meet the business end of that broom.
I heard another yowl from Owen and I wrenched the kitchen door open and launched myself into the space, swinging the broom like a pirate’s cutlass.
Detective Marcus Gordon turned from the stove, waving the wooden spoon in his hand at me. The radio was playing softly in the background. Marcus was singing along to Aerosmith. Not at all softly. And not at all remotely on key, either.
“Hi,” I said, a little stunned.
Owen was perched on one of my kitchen chairs, bobbing his gray tabby head along to Steven Tyler. The cat seemed to be joining in on the chorus, or maybe he was singing harmony. I wasn’t exactly sure. He glanced over at me, still brandishing my broom like a sword, and there was what seemed to me to be a self-satisfied gleam in his golden eyes. I knew what that was about.
I looked at Marcus again. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. The ends of his hair were damp, which meant he’d probably been in the shower just a short time ago. My shower maybe? I thought about that for a moment and then I had to force myself to pay attention to what was happening in my kitchen.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I could see that he was stirring something that smelled wonderful, but I had no idea why all six-feet-plus of handsome him was at my stove. Or why one of my new dish towels was clipped to the front of his T-shirt with a couple of clothespins.
Marcus smiled. “Making supper.” He gestured at the table. “I hope it’s okay.”
For the first time I noticed that the table was set for two—place mats, napkins and a fork and large spoon at each place. I’d given him my spare key so he could pick up the tablecloths I’d ironed the night before and deliver them to Maggie and Ruby at the Stratton this morning. There was no way I could lay them down in my truck and not get them wrinkled again.
“Of course it’s okay,” I said. I pointed to the dish towel. “I like your apron.”
He flushed. “I had a shower before I came over. I didn’t want to get sauce on my shirt.”
He seemed to notice the broom then for the first time. “Were you planning on cleaning the kitchen?” he asked.
“Um, no,” I said, realizing I didn’t really want to tell him I’d mistaken his singing for some animal attacking my cat. “I, uh, guess I don’t need this after all.” I leaned the broom against the wall by the door, then crossed the room and kissed him. I still felt a little bubble of happiness every time I did that. There had been a time I’d believed Marcus and I would never be a couple. There’d been a time I would have sworn that I didn’t want to be in a relationship with him. He’d made me crazy sometimes. He still made me crazy, but he also made me very, very happy.
I dipped my head over the pot. “You made spaghetti sauce,” I said. “It smells great.”
Owen meowed his agreement from his perch on the chair.
Marcus gave the sauce another stir. “Actually, I thawed spaghetti sauce,” he said. “Hannah made a big batch before she left.”
Hannah was Marcus’s younger sister. She was an actress and she’d been in town in September as part of the New Horizons Theatre Festival.
“Thawing is good, too,” I said.
Marcus leaned over to turn up the heat on a pot of simmering water. “I’m about to put the pasta on,” he said. “You should have time for a shower.”
“All right,” I said. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help?”
He shook his head and a lock of his dark wavy hair fell onto his forehead. “Owen and I have it all under control.”
The little tabby meowed enthusiastically at the sound of his name.
There was a spot of something on Marcus’s chin. I licked my thumb, reached up and rubbed it away. For a moment I’d considered kissing it away, but I was pretty sure that would have led to a lot more kisses and I really did need to have a shower.
Reluctantly, I pulled my gaze away from his gorgeous blue eyes. Owen was watching me, his gray head tipped to one side. I stopped to give him a scratch under his chin.
“Cats do not eat spaghetti,” I whispered sternly.
He made a face and shook his head. I knew that meant he was planning on wheedling at least a taste out of Marcus.
There was no sign of Owen’s brother, Hercules, in the living room. Upstairs in my bedroom I noticed the closet door was open just a little.
“You can come out now,” I said, peeling off my sweater.
After a moment the closet door opened and a furry black-and-white face peered around the edge.
“I think they’ve stopped singing for now,” I said.
He scrunched up his face in an expression that looked a lot like a grimace. I bent down and scooped up the little tuxedo cat. He shifted in my arms, put a paw on my shoulder and looked at me with his green eyes. “Yes, I heard them,” I said. “I thought something had gotten in here and was torturing you two.”
He dipped his head for a moment as if he was trying to tell me that it was torture for him.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. “You know that was payback from Owen, don’t you?”
Hercules immediately turned and looked at the iPod dock on the table by the bed. The cat shared my love for Barry Manilow. Owen didn’t. Somewhere in his feline brain, singing Aerosmith along with Marcus—if you could call that noise singing—was his way of getting a little revenge for all the times he’d had to listen to Hercules and me do our version of “Copacabana.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to scrub the kitchen floor this weekend.”
Herc’s black-and-white face snapped up and it seemed to me that I could see a calculating gleam in his green eyes. I often did the floors to Ultimate Manilow.
I gave the cat a kiss on the top of his head and set him down on the floor. Then I grabbed my robe and headed for the shower. Five minutes later I was sitting on the edge of the bed again, rubbing my hair with a towel. Hercules was back in the closet. More than once I’d opened the door to find him just sitting on the floor, staring thoughtfully, it seemed to me, at the clothes hanging there.
“I’ve already chosen what I’m going to wear,” I said.
After a moment I heard a muffled meow from inside the closet, followed about thirty seconds later by what sounded like something falling over.
“I picked the shoes, too,” I added.
As I got up to get my comb, Hercules came out of the closet, a dust bunny stuck to his left ear. He swiped at it with a paw, shook his furry head and stalked away. Either he was insulted by my lack of interest in his kitty fashion skills or he’d caught a whiff of the spaghetti sauce.
I pulled on jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and stuffed my bare feet into my slippers.
“Perfect timing,” Marcus said as I stepped into the kitchen. He was just about to drain the pasta, with two pairs of cat eyes, one gold and one green, watching his every move.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just sit.” He inclined his head toward the table.
I pulled out my chair and sat down while he plated our spaghetti and spooned the sauce over the pasta. There was a small dish of grated Parmesan in front of my place. Marcus must have brought that with him, because I knew I didn’t have any. A warm feeling settled in my chest at the thought of him planning all this.
The sauce was delicious—rich with tomatoes, garlic and tiny meatballs no bigger than the end of my thumb.
“Hannah’s a wonderful cook,” I said, twirling another forkful of noodles.
Marcus nodded and licked a dab of sauce off the back of his fork. “I know. She’s been cooking since she was about six.” He smiled and his blue eyes lit up. “Whenever she screwed up a recipe, she’d toss whatever she’d made over the fence and the dogs next door would eat the evidence.”
I laughed and made a face at the same time. “I’m guessing that probably wasn’t so good for the dogs.”
“They both ended up at the veterinary clinic, the whole thing came out and my dad ended up paying the vet bills.” He speared a meatball with his fork. “Hannah was limited to her Easy-Bake Oven for a long time after that.”
Marcus didn’t talk a lot about his family. It had taken a long time for him to feel he could trust me and even more important, that I trusted him. That had been a bone of contention between us as we’d danced around a relationship. But not nearly as much as the fact that I seemed to get mixed up in every one of his cases.
In the two and a half months since the two of us had become a couple, I’d been slowly learning about his family. Most of the time, Marcus talked about Hannah, his younger sister, but I’d learned that his mother was a math professor and his father was a lawyer. It was more than I’d found out in the previous year and a half that I’d known him.
“How are rehearsals going?” I asked, thinking that if Hannah’s acting career suddenly went south, she could have a future as a chef.
Excerpted from "A Midwinter's Tail"
Copyright © 2014 Sofie Kelly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for the Magical Cats Mysteries
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