By Codi Gary
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Veterinarian and animal lover Kara Ingalls needs a Christmas miracle. Opening the Meow and Furrever Cat Café to find loving homes for adorable, adoptable cats was a dream come true—but with more cats than customers, it’s quickly turning into a nightmare. If Kara can’t figure out some way to get the café out of the red, it won’t last past the holidays.
Marketing guru Ben Reese may be annoyingly smart and frustratingly bossy, but when he hatches a plan to put the café in the “green” by Christmas, Kara realizes that she’d be a fool to turn down his help. And so what if he turns out to be an excellent problem solver and nerdy-hot—he can’t even handle fostering one little kitten. She needs to keep their relationship professional and focus on saving the cafe.
But if Ben and Kara can set aside their differences—and find homes for all the cats by Christmas—they might discover that, by risking their hearts, they’ll have their own purr-fect holiday . . . together.
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Robin Hood is an orange tabby with gorgeous golden eyes and purrs for days, but watch out! He’ll steal your heart and your food!
THE DARK CLOUDS DRIZZLED misty rain as Ben Reese stepped off the curb into a crosswalk and jogged across the street. Downtown Roseville was a suburban paradise that lacked the bumper-to-bumper traffic and tall buildings of neighboring Sacramento. He hated commuting, which is why he’d been excited to take a position at Kilburn Marketing, an up-and-coming marketing firm fifteen minutes from his new home. It was a far cry from his native Boston, but he expected to like the mild winters of Northern California.
Not to mention it took him three thousand miles away from the heartbreak and drama he’d left behind.
As he passed by the window display of the local bank, he chuckled at the falling leaves painted on the glass. It was mid-November, that time of year when everyone was uploading posts about what they were thankful for to Instagram, just biding time until they could put up their Christmas trees.
He wouldn’t be doing any of that this year. In fact, he’d given up social media before making the big move from the East to the West Coast, and it had done wonders for his peace of mind. While he knew it was an essential tool from a marketing standpoint, he didn’t feel the need to chronicle his day via stylish pictures and goofy story-time videos. Especially since he didn’t have much going on except for work and home improvements on his new place.
His office was a few blocks down on the left, but since it was Saturday, he wasn’t heading there today. He’d come downtown to see how his new campaign was doing.
The city had hired Kilburn Marketing to bring more bustle to downtown Roseville this holiday season by drawing attention to the events and unique businesses along the strip. Ben had skimmed through the list of shops on the main stretch and picked out what he hoped was a solid first spotlight, and he wanted to check out the response to this morning’s ad.
He rounded the corner onto Second Avenue, and a wave of triumph washed over him. A line of people twenty-five deep stretched out along the sidewalk, waiting for Meow and Furever Cat Café to open. The little pastry shop advertised gourmet coffee drinks, fun merch, and time spent with adoptable cats. His colleague Will Schwartz had dropped in last week to snap a few pictures of the place and its inhabitants for their first downtown feature. Ben had gone to Children of the Horn instead, a store for musical instruments and other kid-friendly creative outlets, to get an interview with the owner for their second feature, which would drop next week in time for Small Business Saturday. Ben thought he’d gotten the better deal. He’d rather listen to children scream and play out of tune than eat a cat-fur pastry and hack up a hair ball.
While he knew pets were a big deal to some people, Ben didn’t understand the appeal of a feline companion. Cats were aloof jerks who got into everything and crapped anywhere they wanted. Dogs could be trained at the very least, although he wasn’t into owning any animal if he was being honest. He liked his home quiet and orderly, unless he was using a drill. But the café was an unusual business that Kilburn and the city of Roseville thought would be a good start to the series.
Roseville Magazine included the ad this morning and offered the chance to win a fifty-dollar gift card to anyone who visited and snapped a selfie at the café, as long as they tagged Kilburn and the magazine in their post.
Apparently there were a lot of early birds ready to get that worm.
A high-pitched eep erupted behind him, and he turned to find a pale woman with copper hair piled high on her head in a messy bun. The collar of a hunter green peacoat was pulled up around her neck, probably to block the sprinkling rain. The thick coat hugged her chest and flared out over her full figure, something Ben could have appreciated if he was in the “interested” frame of mind, but after his last breakup, women were in the same category as Double Stuf Oreos—best avoided, as they did nothing but cause problems for him. He’d devoured packages of the sweet cookie sandwiches in one sitting for several weeks until he couldn’t button his pants anymore, and it had taken him twice as long to work off the post-heartbreak weight. He’d always been a big-boned guy, but he’d taken the phrase “eating his feelings” to a whole new level.
Still, she was striking. Women who would blow away if a strong wind came up never appealed to him. The bridge of her nose sported an off-center bump, like she’d taken a good punch to it and never had it set right. A dash of freckles spread out over round cheeks, made darker by the pallor of her face, and wide hazel eyes stared past him at the crowd, lashes fluttering rapidly like the wings of a butterfly.
“What’s happening?” she asked quietly.
Ben cocked his head. “Are you asking me or wondering aloud?”
The woman’s gaze darted toward him at the same time she reached up with one hand to brush back a strand of damp wayward hair. “A little of both, I suppose.”
“It depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re referring to the crowd of people over there, I’m pretty sure they’re waiting for that café to open.”
“But where did they come from?” she asked, her voice a touch too high, while gesturing emphatically. Clutched in her left hand was a baby blue leash, and his gaze traveled along the nylon yard, expecting to find a small dog cowering behind her black knee-high boots, but instead, a longhaired black-and-white cat stood next to her, its short, fluffy tail twitching rapidly as the feline regarded him with lemon-yellow eyes.
“Is that a cat…on a leash?”
Her eyes narrowed as she responded, her tone oozing sarcasm. “No, it’s a pineapple on a string.”
Ben threw up his hands in front of him in peace. “Whoa, it was just a question. I’ve never seen anyone walking a cat before.”
She sighed loudly. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a rough morning, and this just buttercreams my cake.”
Ben coughed, attempting to cover up his amusement at her charming turn of phrase and the way it sounded in her Southern accent. “The people at the café?” He checked his watch. “It doesn’t open for another thirty minutes. If you can’t stand in line for that long, there’s another coffee shop two streets down.”
The woman’s mouth twisted up in a disgusted pout. “No, thank you. I don’t need to spend five dollars on burnt coffee.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask why cat-fur coffee was more appealing, but considering her companion, he kept that question to himself.
“I really can’t deal with this right now.” Her Southern accent grew stronger the more she spoke. “I have a gallon’s worth of dry shampoo in my hair because my water wasn’t working this morning and I couldn’t shower, and when I finally got the fifth plumber I called on the phone, he said maybe he could get to me this afternoon for a cost, and I—” She groaned, running a free hand over her face. “I realize I am standing on the sidewalk complaining about my woes to a stranger.”
“I’d say it happens all the time, but I think I’m pretty imposing. Most people take one look up at the beard and the resting jerk face and keep moving.”
“You are rather tall and impressive. Ironically, I find the bearded look less intimidating than a clean-shaven face in a suit.” She clicked her tongue, her gaze returning to the line. “Did you know that one in twenty-five people are sociopaths and many of them work in the corporate world?”
“That’s a random factoid. Are you saying I look crazy?”
“No, I was thinking about suits and jobs, and based on how many people are standing over there, at least one of them is one.”
“That’s a little terrifying.”
“Not really. Most sociopaths aren’t violent. They get their kicks from firing people and backstabbing.”
“Your train of thought is dizzying.”
“Adult ADHD. I’ll be talking a mile a minute about one thing and suddenly—squirrel!”
Ben didn’t hide his amusement this time. “You don’t say?”
“Was that you paraphrasing The Princess Bride, or do they use dizzying a lot where you’re from?”
“Where do you think I’m from?” he asked.
“Somewhere back east?”
“Ah, I’m from Alabama. Couple of fishes out of water in the California sun, huh? Well—” She looked up at the gray clouds with a laugh. “California rain I guess is more accurate.”
“Maybe. To answer your question, yes, I was paraphrasing. It’s my mother’s favorite movie, so I spent a lot of nights watching it with her.”
“I totally forgot I asked you a question, to be honest.” The woman’s lips twitched. “I think that’s sweet.”
“Funny enough, the guys at my school didn’t love my Inigo Montoya impression.”
“Oh no. Swirlies or wedgies?”
“Pantsing, actually. Yeah, right there as I walked up the steps of school. When I started wearing a belt, they still tried, but the guy got his finger stuck in my belt and”—Ben made a cracking sound, motioning with his hands like he was splitting a pencil in two—“broke it.”
“Now that’s karma.” She smirked.
“Wow, you’ve got a mean streak.”
“Only for bullies. Can’t stand them.” A large raindrop splashed against her cheek, and she looked up at the sky. “Drat. Of all the days for Michelle to be gone.”
She cocked her head to the side, sending waves from her messy bun flying out of their constraints. “The café. I have to be up front today, and that is quite a crowd. I’m afraid I wasn’t prepared.”
“Oh, you work there?” That made sense, especially with her companion and her animosity toward another coffee house.
“Actually, I run it. Well, my best friend, Charity, and I do. She’s the beautiful baker, and I’m the medical brains. Not that she isn’t incredibly smart, but I have to have a skill too, right? And being the anxiety-plagued one doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Usually I’m in the back taking care of the cats and cleaning up messes, but we’re down a barista.” Her face suddenly snapped back into a scowl. “I wish I knew why these people were here.”
“You sound upset about it. Doesn’t more people mean more money and adoptions?”
“Technically, yes,” she said, although her expression still read like she wasn’t convinced. “But crowds are different than a steady stream of customers. I get anxious when there are too many people around me—and yes, I realize I am oversharing again, but you asked.”
“I did.” Ben watched the rapid rise and fall of her chest and grimaced. “Are you going to have an anxiety attack?”
“I’m not sure. I guess if I curl up in the fetal position and start rocking back and forth, you’ll have your answer.”
“I only ask because I’ll feel responsible if you pass out on me.”
Her dark eyebrows knitted together. “Why is that?”
Ben waved his hand toward the crowd. “I work for Kilburn Marketing, and the city is doing features on the downtown shops. Your café was our first story this morning in Roseville Magazine, and behold, it was a success.”
“This is all because of an article?” she asked, her voice eerily calm.
“And a contest. The magazine is giving away a fifty-dollar gift card for sharing your café on social media.”
Ben rushed ahead, like he was pitching a sales point to a client. “I know it’s a bit overwhelming, but your café has a unique concept that appeals to…a certain type of person.”
Her scowl deepened. “I wasn’t going to call this overwhelming. I was going to say disastrous.”
“Disastrous?” The woman was off her rocker. Other shops would kill for this kind of exposure, especially with small businesses going under left and right.
“Yes! You basically bribed people who have no interest in our business to show up and attract more people. Who is to say they buy anything? They’re going to be thundering through our lobby to take a picture and then leave without it benefiting us at all.”
“Whoa, wait a second. I’m betting every single one of them grabs at least a coffee, and if ten people see their post online, statistically, at least one should check your rescue out in the future. Given, of course, that they’re a…”
“A what? Someone with good taste?”
Taken aback by her suspicious tone, he spluttered, “You know. A cat person.”
“Which you aren’t, I take it?”
“To be honest, I’m not much for animals in general, but cats…” He had a feeling he was wandering into dangerous territory and caught himself.
“Cats are what? Awesome? Empathetic? Cuddle bugs? Entertaining?”
A high-pitched growl revved by her feet, and Ben looked down at her cat, who watched him with a similar expression as his mistress—ears pinned back, eyes narrowed, and that rumbling chain-saw noise erupting from its body.
“I don’t need you or your company’s help. Our nonprofit is doing fine.”
Irritation sliced through Ben’s gut. He couldn’t believe how ungrateful she was being, and he let his emotions get the better of him. “Yeah, if you expect the non to be literal,” he sniped.
Her eyes widened, and he silently cursed himself. He didn’t know this woman or her business, and here he was, standing on the sidewalk having a bickering match over something that wasn’t even his idea. He was just the unlucky messenger.
“How do you know we aren’t doing well?”
“I don’t for sure, but my colleague came back after checking out your place and he said it was dead inside.” Why are you still talking? Just tell her to have a nice day and scram!
Maybe because he’d been feeling so good about the campaign before she’d walked into his day and stomped on it like his job was a roach under her boot heel. Or that before she’d flipped the switch on him, he’d found her entertaining. Interesting.
Just another reason he couldn’t trust his judgment when it came to women. She’d gone from a bundle of energy to a downer in three seconds flat. All because he’d steered more business her way.
“Look—” He started to apologize, but she cut him off with a sweep of her hand.
“I don’t know what your colleague”—she sneered at the word like it tasted awful—“thinks he saw, but we do just fine! He probably came in at an off hour!”
Yep, it was definitely time to move on before the claws came out, and he wasn’t talking about the cat. “Fine, my mistake. I’ll be sure to pass on your displeasure to the city.”
“Great!” she snapped, spinning away from him and stomping around the crowd, her peacoat swishing to and fro with the same rhythm as her cat’s tail.
What the heck just happened? He’d experienced irate clients when they didn’t get enough exposure and return on investment, but too much?
Ben didn’t like to entertain stereotypes, but maybe the crazy cat lady wasn’t a myth after all.
Fluffernutter McFluff is a white domestic longhair waiting for his special person to walk through the door. He doesn’t do much, but he looks cute doing it!
KARA INGALLS MUTTERED TO herself as she scooped litter boxes, still peeved over the morning she’d had. She’d hit the snooze button a few times, trying to catch up on some much-needed sleep, but when Kara got up to brush her teeth, she realized her water wasn’t working. Leaving the house without a shower, Kara spent the majority of her drive to work calling plumbers, finally finding one who could come out this afternoon to fix it—with a hundred-dollar premium attached to it since it was a Saturday. While the blow to her account was painful, she’d sell a kidney to get her water back.
That setback was bad enough, but she’d come into work expecting a slow day up front. It was just over a month before Christmas, and Kara knew the minute Thanksgiving hit, the holidays would rush by like a gust of wind. With the limited shopping time, she’d assumed most people would spend this weekend shopping for their Thanksgiving meals and prepping for Christmas, so being up front wouldn’t be as stressful.
Instead, she’d pulled around and found the parking lot behind the café full, and she’d cursed the entire time she circled back to the parking garage at the end of Main Street. When Kara finally parked on the second level and released Theo from his crate, he’d simply twitched his little stub tail and trotted along while Kara stomped angrily to work, ready to have whoever parked in her spot towed.
Then she’d seen the line wrapped around the front of the building and slipped into a swirling vortex of panic.
Any other morning, Kara hung out in the back during rushes while Michelle and Charity served, but Michelle was visiting her parents in the Bay Area this weekend, so it was just the two of them. Staring into a large group of people waving cell phones around and snapping pictures brought on a host of bad memories she’d rather leave buried. And while maybe she shouldn’t have dumped her upcoming anxiety attack on Mr. Bearded Marketing Guy, his holier-than-thou attitude rubbed her wrong.
Plus, you could never trust someone who didn’t like animals. Any animals! A dog person was one thing, but someone who liked living alone without any kind of companionship?
Yep, definitely a sociopath.
He probably has a girlfriend to keep him company.
Kara hated the fact that, before she knew he was the catalyst to the cherry on top of her atrocious day, she’d checked out his ring finger, noting the lack of band. Not that she was looking for romantic entanglements, but he had lovely brown eyes and his smile was wide and warm. For a split second, a zing of attraction had sparked to life, and she’d almost asked him to join her for a coffee sometime.
Of course, the conversation took a downward spiral off a cliff after she’d found out that mess of people out front was his fault, talking about how their rescue was going to fail. He had no idea if that was true, no matter what his coworker saw.
What really stung was that the colleague hadn’t been far off with his assessment. If they didn’t figure out some way to attract more customers—the right customers—to come in and keep coming, they wouldn’t last past January. They were already so deep in the red that Kara wasn’t sure if they could dig themselves out without some kind of hefty donation. That didn’t mean they needed to do big crowd-drawing events that wouldn’t do anything more than sell “a cup of coffee,” as he’d put it.
Kara scrubbed harder at the crusted wet food at the bottom of Matilda’s cage, ignoring the cries of displeasure whenever Kara came too close to the moody calico’s new dwelling in the row above. She had no idea what happened last night, but every cage looked like a bomb went off, and with only one empty, she couldn’t just move the cats to a new clean cage and take care of the cleanup later.
When they’d built Meow and Furever, she’d included plans for a full veterinary clinic, open to the public for extra revenue to keep the café going, but they’d run out of funding before they could complete it. They’d managed to install a large wall of cages for cats to recover and quarantine before they were allowed into the social room, but the potential surgery prep room and suite were being used as storage at the moment. Kara had thought they’d be able to launch the clinic in the new year, but they were taking in more cats than they were adopting out, and at this rate, she’d been considering taking a job at a veterinary hospital on nights and weekends to help keep the café afloat.
Charity kept prodding Kara to establish a better social-media presence, but Kara knew the repercussions of going viral, and the last thing she wanted was the café to get drowned in negative attention because of her past.
“All right, Peanut,” she murmured as she pulled the fat marbled tabby out of his dirty cage to move him into the clean one. “You made quite a mess, didn’t you?”
The chunky cat purred in delight, twisting in her arms so he could make biscuits against her upper shoulder. When he headbutted her under the chin, her doldrums nearly melted under his sweet affections. Ironically named, the five-year-old domestic shorthair became her ward when his father moved out of state to marry a woman he met on social media who was allergic to cats.
For Kara, that would have been a dealbreaker, but she’d simply smiled and handed him paperwork. She didn’t open Meow and Furever to counsel people on why they should keep their pets. It wasn’t about them. It was about advocating for the cats who deserved better than to be dumped because they were no longer convenient.
Kara lifted Peanut into his new cage, rubbing his ears lightly before she closed the door. All the cats they fostered had their own personality quirks that would attract the right owner. It was just a matter of getting them in the door without having to put herself out there on social media.
Maybe we’ll buy a coffee-cup costume and I can dance out front to lure people inside.
That would be better than having to suffer through the trolls and indignities of the online world. She grabbed a new rag and the disinfectant spray, going to work on Peanut’s dirty cage. Kara was done with stupid people, crappy water pumps, and her black cloud of a mood. She was going to scrub the cranky away.
“Whew, you’ll bust right through that steel cage if you keep attacking it like that.”
Kara jumped and swung around to face Charity Simmons. “Good lord, you scared me! Where were you?”
Charity held up her hands and the two tote bags hanging from her fists, her long black hair swinging off her shoulders with the motion. “We needed more milk, so I ran down to the store after I got done filling the case. I called your name, but you were off in your own little world.” Charity leaned against the side of the exam table, studying her with dark eyes. “You seem more wound up than usual. Is it the army of cat lovers outside or has something else got you in a tizzy?”
“They’re not cat lovers,” she grumbled. “They’ve been bribed to come here.”
“I know. I read the ad and figured we’d be busy this morning. Are you okay with it?”
“Not really, but I’m willing to admit we need the exposure. I just wish I didn’t have to be front and center for it while a bunch of people snap pictures of the place to win a gift card.”
“Come on, Kar. You are so paranoid someone is going to recognize your name or your face, but even if they do, you didn’t do anything wrong. You were cleared of all charges.”
Kara winced, closing the door on the newly cleaned cage with a snap. “Maybe in court, but the media crucified me, and now that he’s being released in a few weeks, it’s going to stir everything up again.”
“I still can’t believe he only got two years. Where is the justice in that? Ferris Worthington used you to get close to people and destroyed all the good you did by being a greedy, loathsome, disgusting—”
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2022
- Page Count
- 400 pages