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Grand opening day of my new cat café, and I was envisioning long lines of cat lovers and a plethora of adoption applications. Instead, I got a catfight. Between two humans.
This was not how I pictured the Daybreak Island version of rescue work.
I know the rescue business has its moments. I mean, I wasn’t a cat rescue virgin or anything, having done years of the work out in San Francisco. But that was different, in-the-trenches stressful. Going to a shelter every day and working with different personalities, even with the kitties’ welfare as top priority, had its challenges. But here, back at home on Daybreak Island, it was supposed to be different. Here I’d had visions of people coming from all over the island to visit JJ’s House of Purrs, simply looking for some love from a fur baby. They’d sit on the floor and coo over the cats. The cats would purr adoringly—never swat or hiss—and wait for someone to say the magic words: I want to fill out an application to adopt. We’d have happy endings every day, and find homes for all the island strays.
I used all my visualization techniques to bring this story to life. I was convinced it couldn’t go any other way.
Instead, it was my first day open and I had two women facing off. One, my volunteer, with her hands clenched into fists and coarse, graying hair frizzing out around her head like a steel halo. The other, an indignant blonde wearing designer flip-flops, poised to grab a can of the latest organic hairspray out of her Louis Vuitton purse and use it like Mace. And my purring, happy cats? Scattered to the nearest hiding places for safety.
Nothing in my world was destined to be easy.
“The only way you’ll be getting one of these cats is over my dead body. Maddie, you tell her.” Adele Barrows, my volunteer, wasn’t budging. She directed her words to me while clenching those fists tighter, training an impressive death stare on her adversary. Her stocky, five-foot-seven frame alone might have been intimidating to the wispy woman still clutching one of my cats, a pretty calico named Georgia. And that was notwithstanding the look of utter rage on Adele’s face at the notion that this woman would even consider herself eligible to look at a cat, never mind take one home.
And frankly, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be telling this other woman, because I had no idea what was going on here. Although she looked vaguely familiar, and I was a little distracted trying to figure out why. It wasn’t strange that anyone on this island looked familiar though. I’d grown up here, and even though I’d been gone for a decade, most of the players were still the same.
Grandpa Leo’s eyes widened in panic as he watched the scene unfolding before him. “Maddie,” he stage-whispered finally. “Do something!”
Despite the situation, I nearly laughed. Grandpa Leo, in addition to being the best grandfather in the world, was also Leopold Maloney, the former police chief of Daybreak Island. Our island was comprised of five towns and in the summer months there were more people than could reasonably fit on its total square footage. He’d seen a lot in his years on the job, and no doubt faced down more dangerous criminals than two ladies arguing over a cat. But I had to admit, for a sixty-year-old woman, Adele could be pretty scary when she got cranked up. And cats definitely got her cranked up.
“Don’t worry, Grandpa,” I said, patting his arm. “I got this.” I strode over to the face-off and planted myself in between the two. “Ladies. What can I help with? I’m Maddie James,” I said to the blonde, offering my hand in a lame attempt to defuse the situation. “I’m one of the owners here.”
She stared at me, disdain seeping out of every pore. Her tiny button nose flared slightly at the indignity of the situation she’d found herself in. She was pretty, but in a pampered, rich-person way. Flawless makeup, lips that had an exaggerated puff to them, suggesting some sort of collagen treatment. Gold jewelry dangled off her earlobes, around her neck, and from her wrists. She had a tiny gold ball in the side of her nose and a defiant set to her jaw.
Clutching Georgia closer, she glared at me. “I know who you are. And I didn’t come in here to be verbally abused. I came in here to do you a favor and take one of these cats.”
Georgia arched her back, her eyes wide. I could tell she was seconds away from digging her claws into Blondie’s perfectly tanned arms to gain purchase for her great escape. Smoothly, I reached over and plucked the cat from her, setting Georgia down on the floor. She bolted for the nearest cubby.
“She gets nervous around tension,” I said apologetically. “So, Miss…”
“Holly,” Blondie supplied with a haughty toss of her hair. “Holly Hawthorne. Don’t you remember me?”
Holly Hawthorne? I peered at her more closely, fascinated. The last time I’d seen Holly Hawthorne had been in high school. Which was the case for so many people I ran into on the island. But usually there were remnants of the person they’d been ten years ago. In Holly’s case, not so much. I remembered her as being pretty nondescript back then, with glasses and long, straight hair, nose in a book most of the time. And quiet. In fact, most people probably didn’t notice her half the time. Which was not jibing with the person standing in front of me.
Holly and her twin sister Heather had been two years ahead of me in school. Their family was old-money Daybreak Island and really well-known, involved in charities and fund-raising and all the sorts of things wealthy families around here did. Heather had been the one to play off of her family’s status. She’d been the loud, outgoing one, head of the drama club and obsessed with all the things her parents’ money could buy. While Holly didn’t style her hair to death or wear fancy clothes, or even seem to notice she could have whatever she wanted.
So what the heck happened to her? Had she and Heather swapped personas just for fun? Did twins do that in their thirties?
“Of course! Holly. So great to see you again,” I lied. “So you’re interested in Georgia—”
“She’s not getting her!” Adele piped up, appearing around my right shoulder, her finger jabbing the air in front of Holly’s face. “Not after what you did last year. And the year before that. I’m still feeding the offspring from the orange cat you just had to have that you loved more than life itself.” She mimicked what I assumed had been words uttered by Holly in a previous encounter with exaggerated air quotes, then dissolved into a coughing fit. “You’re a disgrace. And you don’t deserve a cat,” she said, when she’d recovered enough to talk.
Blotches of red crept up Holly’s neck to stain her cheeks. “Just who do you think you are?” she demanded. “You can’t talk to me that way!”
I could tell Adele was about to throw a punch, so I took her arm and swiftly guided her to the back of the room, away from the curious stares of my other guests. They’d come in to relax and instead were getting front-row seats for a reality show. A crossing guard by day, taxi driver by night, and cat feeder and rescuer pretty much the rest of the time, Adele had one goal—to make feline lives better across the island. Her salaries went almost entirely to caring for cats. I admired her for it. But sometimes she got a little overzealous. This was one of those times.
“Can you please stop?” I said quietly. “I don’t need a scene in here.”
“But Maddie, she’s not fit to have pets!” Adele protested, still too loudly. “Are you telling me that just because she’s rich you’re gonna give her what she wants?”
Across the room, I could see Holly bare blindingly white teeth at Adele and open her mouth. I held up a hand to stop her.
“I get it,” I said to Adele, keeping my voice calm and reasonable. “Let me handle it. Okay?”
Adele stared at me, clearly evaluating whether or not she could trust me to do the right thing. Finally she gave a curt nod. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll be in the kitchen.” She turned and stalked out of the room.
Heaving a quiet sigh of relief, I turned back to the other half of my problem. Holly’s arms were crossed over her chest. She glared at me, one foot tapping an annoyed staccato beat on my floor. I breezed back over to her and handed her an application from the stack next to the door.
“Why don’t you fill this out and we’ll go from there?” I suggested.
“I would like the cat now,” Holly said. Her tone strongly suggested I should do as she said. “Don’t be difficult, Maddie. You know very well who I am and what I can provide an animal.”
Yeah. Lots of love, from the sounds of it. Had this nasty woman really lived underneath that quiet high school gal? I reattached my hopefully pleasant smile to my face and tried to speak as if I wasn’t gritting my teeth. “We have a routine we do for all our applicants,” I said. “We don’t send the cats home right away. We need to do vet checks and home checks, and talk to references.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Holly’s phone trilled and interrupted her new tirade. She glanced down and narrowed her eyes, punching at the screen. “Heather. Chill. Out. I said I’ll be right out.” She disconnected, then looked back at me. “So you’re not giving me the cat now.”
“I’m happy to consider your application,” I said. “But again, we don’t send cats home right away.” It wasn’t a total lie. We looked at each request on a case-by-case basis. Some cats we did send home right away. Katrina Denning, Daybreak’s animal control officer and my cat supplier, had given me the authority to do what I felt was right, given my prior experiences as an adoption counselor. In this case, I had no intention of adopting to Holly Hawthorne at all, based on this scene alone. I just wanted her out of my café.
“Then forget it,” she announced. “Your loss. This place is a joke.” And she sailed out the front door in what I’m sure she considered to be a dramatic exit.
The room was silent for a minute, then the rest of the patrons erupted into laughter.
“What a piece of work,” one woman said, coming up to me. “You did the right thing, sweetheart. She doesn’t need that precious cat. The Hawthornes have such big egos I’m surprised there’s room for anyone else on this island.”
“Indeed,” an older gentleman said, looking up from where he played with a gray and white tomcat. “They aren’t the kindest people in town, not by a long shot.” He stroked the cat from his head down to the tip of his tail. The cat arched his back in pleasure.
“I think he likes you,” I said, nodding toward the cat. I didn’t want to perpetuate the gossip about my irate guest. Whatever drama Holly Hawthorne was involved in, I wanted it as far away from JJ’s House of Purrs as possible. Although I was dying to ask around about when she’d turned into her sister. Had Heather turned into the nice one?
“I think he does,” the man agreed. “I’m going to have to ask my wife if we can bring him home.”
“Can I put in an application on Georgia?” the woman who’d spoken up asked me. “She’s so cute. And I want to make sure Holly doesn’t go near her again. I’m sure the poor thing is traumatized.”
I handed her the application I’d been holding for Holly. She took it and hurried to a table to fill it out.
Adele poked her head back in from the kitchen and glared at me. “Maddie? Is the coast clear?”
“Good. Did you tell her to go pound sand?” she asked eagerly, stepping back into the room as the man holding the gray and white cat reached over and gave her a high five.
I wanted to ask him not to egg on her bad behavior, but something told me the point was probably moot. Besides, I had to admit I didn’t actually blame Adele for her vehement disapproval of Holly. I would’ve handled it differently, but Adele wasn’t me. She simply didn’t care about anything but the cats. There weren’t too many people who would take their role as a defender of animals so seriously. Me, I had to consider my brand. And the fact that if I shouted at visitors, people probably wouldn’t want to come in to the café.
“It’s fine, Adele. She left without even filling out an application.”
Adele narrowed her eyes. “You were going to let her fill out an application?”
“I was trying to defuse the situation. She didn’t, so it doesn’t even matter. Don’t worry.”
Adele watched me with those slate-gray eyes long enough that I shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. “You better worry,” she said finally. “She’ll be back. And she’ll bring nothing but trouble with her.”
“Who’ll bring nothing but trouble?”
I whirled around at the voice that suddenly appeared behind my left shoulder. Katrina Denning stood behind me, nodding in approval as she took in the cats’ new digs. Katrina and I went way back. She’d been my childhood babysitter. She wasn’t that much older than me—when I’d been an awful middle schooler she’d been in high school—so once we got past those weird ages, we’d actually become friends. Which made her approval even nicer now. And in addition to supplying cats, she’d promised to supply me with volunteers to help me run this place. She was the reason Adele was here. She’d recommended her to me months ago, when I first decided to move back to Daybreak and commit to the café.
“This place is awesome,” Katrina declared, reaching down to stroke the black cat rubbing against her leg. “Any applications or adoptions yet?”
“One, actually,” I said. “The little orange kitten. I knew he wouldn’t last long. Hopefully we can get the references checked quickly and get him into his new home. The people seem really great. And that lady’s putting in an application on the calico.”
I heard a squeaking sound at my feet and turned around. JJ, my own cat—short for Junkyard Johnny—sidled into the room, checking out the goings-on through his brilliant green eyes. He had a catnip toy in his mouth, one that Adele had hand-made specially for the café. She’d begun work on them as soon as she’d heard what we were doing. Created out of bright colors and fun patterns, they were full of catnip and ranged in size from one a kitten could play with to larger ones for adult cats. They were the café’s signature toy—not only were they for the resident cats to enjoy, but we were selling them too, to raise money for the café. And when a kitty was adopted, he or she would be sent home with one.
JJ, finally having captured my attention, rubbed urgently between my legs. I bent down and stroked his orange fur. I’d picked him up as a stray when he appeared at my grandmother’s grave earlier this summer. He got all the credit for starting this whole strange journey I was on. Mostly, I wanted to thank him for it. Then there were days like today when I wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself into. And it was only the official day one.
JJ dropped his mouse right on my foot. He looked up at me and squeaked, louder this time. I took the toy and threw it. He looked at me disdainfully, as if assuming he would fetch was absurd, but he walked over and retrieved it, then brought it back to me and sat with it hanging out of his mouth. Staring at me. Odd behavior, even for him. Usually he’d be rolling around with it and getting high as a kite.
“That’s great,” Katrina said, yanking my attention away from him. “I have a list waiting to get in, so the more adoptions the better. It really does look great in here.”
I glanced around. To me, it still looked like Grandpa’s living room, with some hasty adjustments made so we could open before we lost the momentum of the summer season. We’d presently allocated the living and dining rooms for the café, since they were our largest rooms on the first floor. We’d added lots of cat furniture, as well as comfy chairs, some cushions, and a few café tables. It looked nothing like I wanted it to look yet—I envisioned a professional entryway with a nice desk area where people could check in, modern cat-related art on the walls, and those fancy leopard-print cat perches all around. But on the positive side, it was homey and comfortable and there were plenty of spots for the cats to sleep, hide, and play. And lots of closed doors to the rest of the house so no kitties could wander off.
Luckily, Grandpa’s sunny yellow Victorian, which had been in his family for generations, had room for a couple of cat cafés, as well as our whole family if we ever all wanted to live together again. As it was, my business partner Ethan and I were living here. The house was four stories plus a basement, and it sat on a prime corner lot down the street from the ferries. It was only a five-minute walk into the center of Daybreak Harbor, which was the largest town out of the five on the island. Which meant it was in a great spot for visitors. The balconies dotting the back of the house offered obstruction-free views of the ocean.
It was still my favorite place in the world, so being able to live here again was special. And sharing it with some of the island’s four-legged friends was an added bonus.
“So you’ve had lots of people?” Katrina asked.
I nodded. “There have been people in here since I opened the doors. And everyone’s had positive things to say. Well, mostly everyone.” I frowned, remembering Holly’s angry parting words.
“Yeah, so you didn’t answer my question.” Katrina tucked her dark blond hair behind her ears, blowing her too-long bangs out of her face. As usual, she wasn’t devoting much time to self-care. Or even a haircut. “Someone’s bringing trouble?”
“That spoiled, rotten diva Holly Hawthorne,” Adele supplied, eager to fill Katrina in. “She came in and wanted precious Georgia, then threw a hissy fit when Maddie wouldn’t give the cat to her.”
Katrina rolled her eyes. “That woman is a nightmare. She wants a cat like I want an aneurysm. I mean, she’d have to hire someone to scoop the litter box. Which wouldn’t be a problem, but seriously. She just wants the idea of a cat. She should get a stuffed animal.”
I hid a smile. Holly certainly had gained a reputation. “I don’t remember her being anything like that in high school. Wasn’t she kind of nerdy? And I don’t mean that in a mean way. I was a nerd.”
“You were?” Katrina looked surprised.
“Of course I was. A trendy nerd, but still a nerd.” I winked.
“Oh.” Katrina nodded. “Well, yeah. She used to be nice back then, actually. Her sister was always crazy. And loud. Holly went away to college and came back just as crazy. Maybe her family demanded it so she would fit in. Whatever happened, she’s just like her sister now. So they can’t even stand each other, and they’re practically the same person.”
“Yeah. I heard Heather yelling at her on the phone while she was in here. Well,” I said. “I’m not going to worry about it. She’s gone, and from the sounds of it, she’s not coming back. And I have a grand opening to celebrate. You guys in?”
Copyright © 2018 by Liz Mugavero.