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"Lara, I need your help," Sherry Bowker said. "I think my mom is about to commit murder. Someone has to stop her, and I've decided that someone is you. You're the one who's had experience with this murder gig. You're the perfect gal for the job."
"What? Me!" Lara Caphart huffed out a breath. "I beg to differ, Ms. Bowker. What you call experience was more like bad luck. Really bad luck."
Over the past year Lara had encountered two different murderers. She'd come out of it with her life intact but had no intention of performing any encores.
"Yeah, you say that," Sherry said darkly. "But there's something about you. You have a knack for latching on to killers. I don't want my mom to be one of them. Think of it as murder in reverse."
Lara groaned. "I do not latch on to killers. Not intentionally, anyway." She went back to the task at hand, namely, untangling a lump of matted fur from Purrcival's silky neck. The sweet-tempered cat with the kaleidoscope markings had a knot that just wouldn't quit.
They sat cross-legged on the floor in the large parlor of the Folk Victorian home in Whisker Jog, New Hampshire owned by Lara's Aunt Fran. Eleven months earlier, the house had officially become the High Cliff Shelter for Cats. Lara and her aunt had already rescued several cats and placed them in loving homes. The shelter's current feline community consisted of Aunt Fran's own three furbabies, a feral male, and four kitties that were rescued over the summer.
"First of all," Lara said, smiling at what she hoped was her friend's grand exaggeration, "I can't picture Daisy Bowker killing anyone, let alone killing David's mom. Second of all —"
"But that's just it! She's been doing things so out of character lately. Even David has noticed it." A slight flush tinged Sherry's cheeks. "He's worried that his mom is becoming a bee in my mom's bonnet. He doesn't know how to stop his own mom without hurting her feelings."
Sherry had been seeing David Gregson for about five months now and still wore the glow of having found the so-called perfect man. Lara thought it was way too early in the relationship to make that assumption. Still, she was happy for Sherry's newly minted romance. She hadn't seen such joy in her friend's eyes for a very long time.
Lara liberated the furry knot from the soft-bristled brush and wrapped it in a paper towel. She kissed Purrcival's head and released him from her grip. He rubbed his face on her chin, then padded away to score some extra love from Sherry. Sherry took the cat in her lap and stroked his mat-free fur.
Sherry groaned. "It's all about the cookies, Lara. Mom and Loretta each got an email three days ago. They're both finalists in the Whisker Jog Annual Cookie Challenge. I'm so bummed. I was praying Loretta wouldn't make the cut."
"Okay, well that doesn't sound so bad," Lara said. Except she knew that Daisy was putting all her hopes on winning the contest this year. She'd placed second three years in a row. This year she had her heart set on winning the thousand-dollar prize from the sponsor, The Bakers Thryce Flour Company. As for Loretta, Lara wasn't so sure about her intentions. She didn't really know the woman.
Sherry sank her fingers into Purrcy's soft fur. The cat closed his eyes and purred. "You don't get it, Lara. Lately, Loretta's been copying everything Mom does. Last week she got a new hairstyle that looks suspiciously like Mom's. Short in the back, longish on the sides, with a single blond streak. She's like, you know, almost stalkerish!"
"That only means she admires Daisy," Lara pointed out, though the image of a woman in her fifties copying another woman's hairdo gave her a slight chill. "You should be happy."
"I should be, but I'm not. It means she's competing with Mom. I'm not sure what she's competing for, but she's in the flippin' cookie contest. I didn't even know she'd entered, and now she's one of the thirty finalists!" Sherry pulled a strand of her raven- black hair into her mouth and chewed the ends. Lara hadn't seen her do that since grade school.
"I hear you, Sher. And I'm not trying to dismiss your feelings. But trust me, Daisy won't do anything crazy, even if David's mom is driving her crazy."
"Maybe not," Sherry said grimly. "But you'd better be there. Just in case." Her shoulders sagged. "Unfortunately, there's one more thing that will not make Mom happy."
"Yeah. Uh-oh. I just found out this morning that Gladys Plouffe, my old home ec teacher, is going to be one of the two judges. She's a last-minute sub for the music teacher, who fell down the stairs two days ago and broke both her ankles."
"You mean ... the Plouffeinator?"
"You remembered," Sherry said dismally. "And you never even met her!"
"I remember you telling me about the abominable Miss Plouffe," Lara said. "Among other lovely names, you called her a witch of a ... well, you know."
"She tormented me in school, Lara," Sherry said. "Gave me Ds for no reason except that I couldn't, to save my life, thread that stupid sewing machine. Back in the day, Mom had more than a few screaming matches with her. I'm dreading Mom finding out that she's a judge."
"Does the ... does Miss Plouffe still teach home ec?"
"She did until a year ago. Finally, finally the witch retired. But she had clout in that school, Lara. No one's really sure why." Sherry's eyes took on a glazed, faraway look. "I can still see her, sitting alone in her room chomping on a ham sandwich. She never ate lunch in the teachers' lounge, probably because none of them could stand her. I can't think of one friend she ever had in that school."
"Maybe she has dirt on someone," Lara joked.
Sherry didn't smile. "Has to be something. Anyway, you have to be at that competition next Saturday to keep a close eye on Mom."
"Sher, I think you're overthinking it, but I'll definitely be there. I mean, who loves cookies more than I do?"
Sherry gave up a tiny smile. "Probably only Santa Claus."
* * *
Lara hadn't told anyone, but she'd tried entering the contest herself. Not with people cookies, but with cat cookies.
Cookies for cats, that is.
The yearly cookie event was sponsored by The Bakers Thryce, a privately owned flour company founded at the end of World War II by one of Whisker Jog's most beloved entrepreneurs — Holland Thryce. The business flourished until Holland's sons, Tate and Holland, Jr., joined the company. It wasn't long before all three had a falling out. Tate left with a bitter taste in his mouth, while Holland and his elder son continued with the business. Not long after Holland, Jr.'s son, Todd, was born, he and his wife died in a boating accident, leaving the child in the care of his grandparents.
As for Holland, who'd long since rolled out his last mound of cookie dough, his legacy thrived. His grandson, Todd Thryce, had carried the company into the twenty-first century by stubbornly refusing to go public. He'd also moved the company's offices to a prestigious New York address.
None of which meant anything to Lara. It was the cookies and the contest she cared about.
She bit her lip and frowned. The letter she'd received ten days ago from the company was signed by Thryce's personal assistant, Alice Gentry. Lara's suggestion that a pet-friendly cookie category be added to the lineup was soundly, if politely, denied. "You may enter cookies that look like cats," Ms. Gentry had crisply stated in the letter, "but not cookies that are for cats."
The letter went on to say that if such a category were added, there would be no fair way to judge the entries. They couldn't exactly ask the judges to taste cookies made from tuna, pumpkin, and boiled chicken livers.
Lara had to admit, they had a point. But that got her brain cells fired up. She came up with a way the cat cookies could be judged ... and encourage cat adoptions at the same time. She only wished she'd thought of it before she sent off her letter to the company.
There was one more thing she could do, she decided. The contest was held each year in the gymnasium at Whisker Jog High School. In the opposite wing of the school, in the cafeteria, those who didn't make the cut could offer their cookies for sale. The proceeds went to the local food bank.
She sat at the kitchen table and booted up her tablet, the scent of cloves and cinnamon wafting around her. Aunt Fran had made a pot of mulled cider. It simmered on the stove, making the room smell heavenly.
For some reason, the internet connection took forever. After what seemed like several minutes, Lara tried to pull up the Web site for the cookie competition. Another long wait. When the site finally came up, she smiled.
"You look intense," Aunt Fran said, coming up behind her.
"Ach!" Lara jumped. "I didn't even hear you. You're quieter than a cat sometimes, you know that?"
Her aunt winked at her. "The easier to spy on you, my dear," she said in a mock evil voice. On her shoulder, a small white cat with one blue eye and one green eye perched contentedly. The cat peered around the kitchen, her pink nose lifting at the scent.
Lara smiled and held out her arms to the cat. Snowball leaped softly onto her lap and rubbed against her snowman-themed sweater. Lara bent and kissed the little feline's soft white head.
"What do you think about this?" Lara asked her aunt. "What if I make my cookies for cats and sell them at one of the tables in the school cafeteria? According to the Web site, there are three tables left, and they're up for grabs. It'll only set me back ten bucks for the day."
"Go for it," Aunt Fran said. She pulled two Santa-shaped mugs out of her cupboard and set them on the counter. "You might start a whole new trend."
Lara tapped at her tablet. The connection was slow, deathly slow. It took a few minutes to get to the page where she was able to reserve a table.
Aunt Fran set a mug of spicy warm cider on the table, behind Lara's tablet. "Thanks," Lara said distractedly. "Now I'm having trouble getting onto Google. The Wi-Fi's acting wonky. It has been all day."
Her aunt sat down adjacent to her. She wrapped her hands around her own mug and then took a slow sip.
"What are you trying to find?" Aunt Fran asked.
Lara grinned. "Cookies for cats. I want to find a recipe that I can tweak and make into my own. It'll be so much fun to experiment."
"You've only got another week," her aunt warned.
"Don't remind me," Lara said wryly. After Thanksgiving was over, the days leading up to Christmas seemed to fly by on speedy little reindeer hooves.
"Darn." Lara scowled and swiped at her tablet. The Wi-Fi was definitely acting up. Finally, she set aside her tablet and pulled her mug closer. The moment her lips touched the warm cider, she felt a smile creep across her face. "Yum," she said, after taking her first sip. This is positively scrumptious."
"Thank you." Aunt Fran looked pleased.
"You know what? I think I'll go to the library. I'll bet they have a book or two on pet-friendly recipes. Plus, I'll get to see that adorable Santa scene they set up every year."
"Sounds like a plan," Aunt Fran said. "When you were a kid, you loved that display. I used to have to drag you out of there before we got locked inside the library."
Munster chose that moment to stroll into the kitchen. An orange-striped cat with big gold eyes, he was one of the original feline residents before Aunt Fran began taking in rescues. A lovable darling, he looked miffed at the sight of Snowball nestled atop Lara's flannel-lined jeans. He promptly turned up his nose at her and plopped onto Aunt Fran's lap.
Lara laughed. She drank the rest of her cider, then said, "And I have to let you go, Snowball, so I can pop over to the library." She gave the white cat one more kiss and set her gently on the floor.
Across the table, a sudden movement caught Lara's eye. A fluffy, cream-colored cat with chocolate brown ears sat gazing at her. Her eyes were the bluest Lara had ever seen on a cat. The Ragdoll cat blinked once, then rested her chin on the table. A sure sign that Lara was on the right path.
You want me to make those cat cookies, don't you? Lara asked silently.
The Ragdoll — Blue — blinked again. In the next instant she was gone.CHAPTER 2
The moment Lara stepped into the children's reading room of the Whisker Jog Public Library, she felt like she was seven again.
Against the far wall, beneath a towering window, was a long table covered in glittery white felt. Lumpy in spots to look like real snow, it was the setting for a scene depicting Santa and his merry helpers preparing for that yearly sleigh ride across a darkened, star-studded sky.
Nine reindeer — Rudolph in the lead — were harnessed to a wooden sleigh painted cherry-red. The sleigh was piled high with miniature packages, each one so intricately wrapped that Lara could almost believe there were tiny treasures inside. A detailed Santa made from felted yarn tottered toward the sleigh, his arms loaded with even more gifts. A pink-cheeked Mrs. Claus shuffled behind him, holding out his thermos for the long night ahead. Behind the sleigh was Santa's workshop — a log cabin of sorts. Through the windows, the faces of the elves could be seen as they toiled at their toy-making tasks.
"I loved this when I was a kid," Lara told Ellie Croteau, one of the library aides. "I used to stand here for hours after school, drinking in every detail. At least it seemed like hours."
With a world-weary smile, Ellie scooped a book off the floor. "I guess it is rather cute. Me, I'm not much of a Christmas person. My favorite time of year is when the holidays are over. Then we can put all this crap away for eleven months."
Lara smiled. She felt sorry for people who didn't enjoy the trappings of the holiday season. The woman no doubt had her reasons. Lara wasn't in a position to judge. She was grateful that her own childhood had been infused with a love of all things Christmas.
"Anyway," Ellie said, "you got here at just the right time. The third-grade reading group left fifteen minutes ago. I thought my eardrums were going to burst from all the chatter and the squealing."
The room is for kids, Lara wanted to point out. Instead she flashed another polite smile at the woman. Enough of this, she told herself. She'd come here to research cookies for cats. Time was a-wasting.
In the main room of the library, Lara peeled off her fleece jacket and sat down before one of the computers. Things were quiet today. A teenage boy with a mop of black curls and earbuds stuck in his ears sat at the monitor next to hers. If he noticed her, it wasn't obvious.
Lara rubbed the chill from her fingers and skimmed them over the keyboard. Within a few minutes, she discovered there wasn't a lot to choose from. Recipe books for pet treats weren't exactly burning up the bestseller lists. She could always order a book, but that would mean waiting for delivery. She wanted to start experimenting with cat cookie recipes right away.
A few minutes later, she landed on what she hoped would be a useful guide. Treats for Your Cat had a glossary of recipes that looked promising. The copyright date was 1989, which happened to be one year before Lara was born.
It's a sign, she told herself.
A flash of cream-colored fur darted across the keyboard. Lara was so startled that she took in a sharp breath.
As quickly as it appeared, it was gone.
Lara smiled to herself, then shot a glance at the teen. He looked completely unaware that she'd even sat down beside him. Either way, he wouldn't have seen Blue.
Only Lara could see her.
* * *
"You've attracted a crowd," Aunt Fran said, grinning at her niece.
"No kidding." Lara giggled. "The scintillating scent of salmon does it every time."
Of the eight cats in the household, five danced around Lara's ankles as she stood at the kitchen counter. Valenteena, the small black-and-white female with a heart-shaped marking under her chin, issued a long, exaggerated meow. Her theatrical cries were the reason Lara had dubbed her the shelter's drama princess.
"Yes, little princess, I hear you loud and clear. The man in the moon can probably hear you."
Valenteena reached up and sank her claws into Lara's jeans.
"Ouch." Lara reached down and carefully extracted the cat's claws from her leg. "I'll give you salmon in a minute. Be polite and wait with the others."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Claws For Celebration"
Copyright © 2018 Linda Reilly.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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