THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS (Chapter One)
By Robyn Anders
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"You're late again."
Jennifer Hollman ducked her head, trying to put her eyes below her boss's level. He didn't like it when people stood over him. That little character defect caused problems since, on tiptoes, he towered a good two inches below her own five-six.
"Sorry, sir. It's just that"
"I don't tolerate rules violations, Ms. Hollman. Late is late."
Obviously Mr. Chuck Schilling, Jr., manager of his family's Schilling Department Store, wasn't having a good day. Jennifer couldn't remember his last good day, but his moodiness meant she couldn't tell him about the little discoveries she'd made on her walk to work. Animals, like just about everything else, were against the rules.
As if tracking her thoughts, Schilling glared at her.
"What's in the sack?"
Jennifer looked at the brown paper bag she carried as if seeing it for the first time. It wobbled, and she wiggled her hand to make the movement seem natural. "I always bring my lunch."
"Right. Well, Ms. Hollman. . ." his gaze left her when he spotted an easier victim. "You there. Ms. Rogers. I know that's your boyfriend you're talking with. The rule is, no fraternization."
Jennifer moved to help Lisa but the scratching sound from her bag stopped her cold. If she didn't get out, she'd get both of them fired. Instead of staying, she escaped toward her station in the lingerie department.
She whispered a little warning to silence the sweet mewing inside the brown paper bag that had once held her lunch but now held two kittens she'd found abandoned on the side of the road. She needed to find them a safe hideout until she could sneak them home.
A frantic look around her department offered only one potential hiding place. The overstock drawer on the top shelf. It wouldn't matter what kind of a mess the kittens made there since the lingerie was going to be discarded anyway.
She petted the little calico female, avoided a playful bite from the black-and-white male and wondered why anyone would abandon these precious animals? As quickly as she could, she made a cozy nest in the fading bra and panty sets, nestled her kittens, then closed the drawer.
Her most regular customer, Mrs. Nash, strode up to the counter just as Jennifer clambered down the stepladder.
"I have a date," the woman declared.
"Fantastic," Jennifer effused as if the sixty-something Mrs. Nash hadn't had at least one date during each of the past fifty-two weekends. "One of your regulars?"
"This one is new," Mrs. Nash said with a girlish giggle. "And special. I want him to notice me." The woman gave a hip roll that scattered a rack of sale panties across the floor. Mrs. Nash weighed over two hundred pounds, but she enjoyed her men. From what Jennifer could tell, they enjoyed her too. Since Jennifer's current male companions were feline rather than human, she didn't have any room to criticize.
"For a first date you'll want something conservative," Jennifer suggested. "I've got a pair of navy tights that are extremely, you know, supportive."
Out of the corner of Jennifer's eye, she noticed a man in Lisa Roger's department. He picked up a sports watch and studied it. Since Lisa had disappeared after Schilling's lecture Jennifer was responsible for both stations.
"You're not listening," Mrs. Nash insisted.
"I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
"I don't want conservative, I want wild. Something to knock his pants off if you know what I mean." She gave Jennifer a leer. "Something a hunk like him over there would notice." Mrs. Nash stuck her thumb in the direction of the male shopper.
Jennifer looked at the man more closely.
He was tall, maybe six-three, but not skinny like a lot of tall guys. In fact, Jennifer couldn't see anything wrong with his body. With everything else, yes. His work boots were scuffed and stained with grease. Paint-spattered cowboy-cut jeans hugged his perfectly shaped butt. His gray T-shirt held a logo for Tattoo.com proclaiming it the largest body art site on the web. His black hair was way too long for her taste, hanging down below a battered straw cowboy hat.
Worse, in the instant Mrs. Nash had distracted her, the watch he'd held had vanished. Darn.
Jennifer normally ignored men. None were involved in the Dallas Cat Rescue League and few bothered entering the lingerie department. When they did, they generally wanted out in a hurry. Still, this man was hard to ignore. Maybe it was the arrogant way he stood, as if he owned the world. Then he caught her gaze and quickly ducked his head, avoiding meeting her eyes. Like a shoplifter.
"Excuse me." She left Mrs. Nash and walked toward the man. His shopping bag could hide handfuls of small, valuable items. Like watches or lingerie.
"Would you mind if I looked in that bag, sir?"
"Yes I would." His voice touched her at some subconscious level, and her hormones went into overdrive in a way they hadn't since she'd been in high school dating Rick Engle.
She closed the distance between them, entering into his personal space. She could handle this. "Sir, I'm going to have to insist."
"I don't think so, Jennifer."
He knew her name.
She couldn't help herself. Without conscious volition, her hand reached for his hat and tugged it off.
The man's face was too strong to be movie-star handsome. His tan looked more like he'd earned it working in the sun than in a tanning bed. Hawklike black eyes glared at her. She knew those eyes, that face.
Once his lips had kissed her to distraction. From their set grimace, now kissing was the farthest thing from Rick Engle's mind.
"Rick," she breathed. "What are you doing here?"
Jennifer wasn't sure how she felt about meeting Rick ten years after he'd stormed out of her life. Obviously Rick didn't suffer any of the same confusion. He was mad.
"That was my question. Don't you have anything better to do than slum in Oak Cliff?" he demanded.
He obviously assumed she was still the little rich girl she'd been in high school. Tough. She didn't owe him any explanation.
"That's none of--"
A shrill scream interrupted her before Jennifer could complete her reply.
"What the--" Rick dropped his bag. His hands formed into fists that looked hard and dangerous. This man knew how to fight.
"Rats!" Mrs. Nash screamed.
For the first time in years, Rick didn't know how to react.
As he watched the jiggle under the top of Jennifer's dress as she hurried to help her distressed customer, his common sense told him to walk away from a problem. His feet had other ideas.
He followed Jennifer, letting his gaze trail her long blonde hair all the way to her backside. She was thinner than he remembered, but all her curves were definitely prime. Her long legs looked like heaven. Fortunately, he knew better. Once, they'd driven him to hell.
"Damn," he muttered. The last thing he needed was a hormonal reaction to the teen flame who'd dropped him like he was on fire.
The customer squealed again.
He didn't think, he just moved, covering the distance to the older woman in plenty of time to catch her as she collapsed and fell from a rickety step ladder.
He couldn't suppress a grunt as way more than two hundred pounds of Rubinesque woman draped themselves over him. He coughed through the cloud of powder that erupted from her skin. Catching this woman was like wrestling jello, but he held on long enough to break her fall. Then he lowered her onto a padded bench outside of a dressing room.
"You look after the lady. I'll have a go at the rats," he told Jennifer.
Jennifer's blue eyes flashed with anger but he didn't stay to argue. Rats make nasty neighbors.
Rather than peer into the drawer like a dufus waiting to get bit, Rick took one step up the ladder, grasped the handles, and jerked the drawer from the wall. In a continuous motion he set it on the floor, and then snapped a three foot length off a nearby broom. He'd killed rats with his bare hands before; he hoped never to repeat the experience.
No rats in sight. Instead, two tiny kittens wiggled in the cups of the most enormous bra he'd ever seen.
He relaxed. "Now that's an interesting way of stuffing a bra." He spared a glance at Jennifer's shapely chest. "Not quite as good as some," he continued, "but interesting."
Careful to avoid the cats, he prodded the drawer full of brassieres and felines with his broom pole.
"Don't hurt my kittens!" Jennifer swooped in for the rescue.
One thing hadn't changed. Jennifer was still looking for helpless victims to salvage. It had taken him years to realize that's all he had ever been to her. Another luckless creature to be rescued, healed, and then sent on his way.
"I'm not going to--"
"Now just what is going on here?" An obnoxious and officious-looking man interrupted Rick.
Rick kept his gaze on Jennifer, not even bothering to give the interloper his attention.
"Jennifer, I asked you a question." Apparently the jerk was a manager--probably Jennifer's boss.
The older woman who had nearly broken his back sidled up to Rick. "It's rats. In that drawer. They were wiggling and, ugh, so hairy." She ran a hand down Rick's arm squeezing his muscle like it was so much meat. "This man rescued me."
"Rats? I assure you ma'am, that--"
"There aren't any rats here." Rick ignored the jerk-boss, speaking to the woman. "I suspect you just saw these--"
"Kittens!" The manager used his tie to wipe ugly beads of sweat from his face. "No rats." He laughed like a dime-store Santa Claus on his way to the unemployment line. Then he glared at Jennifer. "What are your vermin doing in my merchandise?"
"I'm sorry Mr. Schilling. They're just kittens and I was going to take them home during my break." Jennifer's voice sounded ragged and she wrung her hands with concern--like she really cared about this job.
Rick shook his head. What an actress. Her father's money was a safety net millions of dollars wide.
"I was going to take them home during my break," Schilling mimicked.
Rick didn't have a lot of use for kittens. He had even less use for bosses who enjoy throwing their authority around. He unwrapped himself from the clingy customer and closed the distance to Jennifer's manager. "She said she would take them home. No harm, no foul."
"Let me handle this," Jennifer whispered.
"No harm?" Schilling exploded. "Look at the mess these animals made in that drawer."
"I'll pay for the damage," Jennifer offered.
It was like Jennifer to buy her way out of trouble, Rick remembered.
"You're darned right you'll pay," Schilling growled.
Rick had never been much good at butting out of trouble. He poked at the wad of girlie underwear in the drawer. "These bras look pretty faded to me. You planning to make Jennifer pay for your rejects?"
"Rick, this is none of your business."
"You know this man, Ms. Hollman?"
"He's an old friend. He just happened--"
"Just happened to come by," Schilling interrupted. "Of course." His tiny teeth formed a fake-sad smile. "I don't know why you clerks always think that old line will work for you. You know the rules on fraternization. I would have thought you'd learn from Ms. Rogers' mistakes." Schilling shook his head in mock sorrow. "You can pick up your last paycheck next week. Minus damages, of course."
"Now just a minute, turkey." Rick grasped Schilling by his polyester tie and halfway lifted him from the floor. "You can't fire a person because an acquaintance stopped by."
"Security," Schilling gasped.
"I could have talked my way out," Jennifer said, "if you hadn't gone and attacked him." She was almost angry enough to attack someone and Rick was handiest. She balled her fists, but then took a deep breath and looked forlornly at the Schilling Department Store marquis. She'd had this job for almost a year and needed the money.
Rick didn't bother defending himself, probably because he didn't believe he'd done anything wrong. "Pompous jerks like Schilling belong behind bars," was his only comment.
Judging from the scars on his knuckles and his hard muscular build, Jennifer wouldn't have been surprised if he'd spent at least some time in prison himself. What kind of a man wears an advertisement for tattoos?
"Mr. Schilling is trying to do his job," Jennifer told Rick. "It isn't easy keeping retail alive in this neighborhood."
Rick looked at Jennifer like she'd gone crazy. "Schilling fired you and you're defending him?"
"You wouldn't under--" A complaining meow from the cardboard cat-box she'd found outside the department store stopped her retort. "Never mind. I've got to go home."
Rick surveyed the pedestrian traffic with distrust. "I'll walk you to your car. Oak Cliff isn't the safest part of Dallas."
She knew that, she lived here. "That would be a long walk."
Rick stared at her in astonishment. "You don't have a car?"
She shrugged. "So sue me."
"I can't believe it."
She shrugged and for an irrational moment, she was sure his gaze snapped to her body like Superglue. He'd once been fascinated with her hills and valleys, but surely he'd outgrown that years ago.
He took a deep breath. "All right, I'll give you a lift."
Her throat clenched so hard she could hardly breath. The one thing she'd learned was not to depend on men. Rick had taught her that painful lesson. The trouble she was in right now was nothing compared to what she would be in if she started counting on Rick to be there for her.
"Who asked you? I've walked home every evening for the past year. I'll be all right."
"What about the kittens? It's pushing ninety degrees."
Trust Rick to recognize her one hot button and click on it right away. Just like he had when they'd been young. Well, one thing had changed in ten years. "I'm not going to invite you up."
Rick cocked his head. "Now who's jumping to conclusions."
Jennifer resisted the urge to accidentally-on-purpose step on his foot. He was studying her again, probably trying to see the girl he'd dated. He'd have to look a lot harder. That little rich princess was long gone.
"All right," she said, "I'd appreciate a lift."
What he led her to wasn't a car. It wasn't even much of a truck. The ancient Ford would have been a collector's item if someone fixed it up and gave it some attention. Rick hadn't bothered. Instead this relic from the fifties looked like it was held together by chewing gum and pigeon droppings.
"Does this thing run?" Jennifer couldn't help asking.
"Better than what you've got, and it beats walking," Rick replied. He opened the door for her, then walked around, climbed in, and started the engine.
Despite its disreputable appearance, the engine caught instantly and purred into action. The outside might be worse for wear, but the inside, where it counted, must have been perfectly maintained. Quite a contrast to Rick, Jennifer thought. Despite his rough clothes, his outsides appeared in perfect condition. She wasn't sure there was anything left in the center.
"Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right. I lost my job, I'm getting into a truck that looks like Theodore Roosevelt might have driven it up San Juan Hill, and it's two hundred degrees in here. I don't suppose this thing has A/C?"
She only had to spend another ten minutes with the man. Surely she could do that without dumping all over him about their long-dead relationship. Jennifer bit her tongue to keep from blurting out more.
Rick rolled down his window. "Air conditioning is for wimps."
In that heat, Jennifer felt too wimpy to argue. She gave Rick directions to her apartment, comforted Annie and put the calico kitten back in her box. Then she tried to unhook Nick's sharp little kitten-claws from the front of her dress.
She looked up in time to see Rick swerve to miss a telephone pole.
"Don't tell me that thing jumped out at you?" she demanded. "Could you at least try to drive more smoothly? We don't want carsick kittens."
Rick felt like a complete idiot. He'd seen breasts before. Hell, he'd seen Jennifer's breasts before. So why did he completely lose all equilibrium just because she had a kitten stuck on one?
He tore his attention from his passengers and tried to watch the road, finally swinging into her apartment complex without further mishap. At least he thought it was her apartment. Surely this garish aqua-colored converted motel wasn't what rich-girl Jennifer Hollman called home.
He squinted at the horrible, depressing building as he made his way slowly through the parking lot. "I must have made a wrong turn."
"Nope. This is--oh, my God."
"Looks like someone didn't pay the rent." A small stack of furniture and several large piles of books sat in the dried grass in front of one of the apartments. Next to the furniture were four pet crates.
Jennifer made a sound that sounded something like a yelp. "That's my stuff! That's impossible." Without waiting for him to stop, she flung her door open and jumped out of the moving vehicle.
Rick had tried that trick a few times, generally with significant damage to his body. Jennifer went down, but she rolled forward and ended up on her feet next to the stack of pets.
Rick yanked up the emergency brake and jerked his foot off the clutch sending the truck into a stall, then he hauled his tail out.
"Mommy's here now," Jennifer murmured to the animals. "Everything is going to be all right."
Rick wasn't too surprised when the yowling coming from the boxes actually calmed down a little. Jennifer had always had a way with the helpless. A way that cats and teen-aged boys responded to. The surprise was that part of him envied them that soothing, caring voice. He knew the trap that siren's call led to.
"Are they all right?"
Jennifer looked at him like she'd never seen him before. "They're hot and crammed into crates that are intended only to hold one cat each. Of course they're not all right."
"Um, how many cats do you have?"
"Eight." She paused and looked back at his truck. "Plus the two in the box."
"Ten cats?" Rick had wanted a dog when he'd been a kid. He'd never wanted an entire pack.
"I'll find a home for Annie and Nick. Then I'll be back to just my eight." She gave him the happiest smile he'd seen from her in ten years. "I get to keep them while I'm looking for someone who will love them."
"Let me guess. Sometimes that takes a while?"
Jennifer nodded. "I just don't understand why, either. Cats are incredibly easy to take care of and they can be very loving."
Rick held up a hand. "I'm not looking for a pet."
"We like to refer to them as animal companions."
Rick bit his tongue to hold back a snicker. This was important to Jennifer. "I guess I don't want one of those either."
"If you don't want an animal companion, we definitely don't want you taking one. That's half the problem in Dallas already."
"Right." Rick wasn't sure whether to be pleased or insulted that Jennifer didn't become more persuasive. "I can't imagine it's good for these animals to be out here in the sun. Why don't you see about getting them under the shade and I'll chat with the manager and find out why your stuff was dumped out on the curb."
"I paid my rent. It isn't due again for another four days," Jennifer told him.
"You worry about the cats. I'll worry about who tossed your furniture." He turned toward the manager's office.
"Don't hurt anyone. I'm not sure I could afford to bail you out if you get arrested."
"Don't worry about me."
Rick strode to the manager's office and hammered on the door.
After waiting a good minute, he raised his hand to pound again. The door opened with his fist in mid-swing.
He managed to pull back before he squashed an old lady of about seventy.
"Oh, my goodness," the woman blurted. Then she gave him the once-over. "I don't take any hoodlums here."
"Where's the manager?" he demanded.
"I'm the manager."
This wasn't going the way he'd intended. He couldn't see himself getting tough with an old woman. "You may be the manager, but you didn't haul Jennifer Hollman's things out of her apartment."
"Of course not. The owner sent some young men over."
"Then get them back. There's been a mistake."
"No mistake," the old lady stated, nodding firmly. "She's history."
Rick sighed. He minded his business and expected other people to mind theirs own. Still, he
couldn't exactly leave Jennifer out in the yard with her possessions. He reached for his wallet.
"All right, how much does she owe you?"
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