Authors: Michele Dunaway
“Which is why you need the press to love you. You need to be Jingle's angel. Heck, be all stray animals' guardian angel. Let's keep reinforcing that every time Anthony comes.”
“Kat, this is your life's passion. Your shelter. Your animals. What do we have to lose? Use Jack Donovan.”
“I don't use people.” That was unthinkable.
“Kat, I love you like a big sister. You're more than my boss. But you need to put on some boxing gloves and get into the ring. Trust me. Jack is your golden ticket.”
That logic made sense, Kat thought. It didn't mean she liked it.
“Kat?” Louise, the front-desk receptionist, stood in the doorway.
“Mr. Simons is here with Pebbles.”
It was five minutes until closing, which meant it was an emergency. “What's wrong?”
“Shallow breathing. He says she's lying around. Won't eat or drink. Been that way for a day or two.”
“Get her into room two.”
Kat met Jasper Simons in room two, where Pebbles, a sixteen-year-old cat, lay on the table. Mr. Simons was in his mid-fifties and lived nearby. “I just thought she wasn't hungry the past few days, so I tried some new food and â¦”
“She's old, Jas,” Kat said, placing her hand on Pebbles. She felt around, noting the cat's glassy eyes and shallow inhalations. “Sometimes these things come on very quickly.”
“She's not going to make it, is she?” he asked.
Kat did a quick examination. She'd been treating Pebbles for five years and knew her well. “She's had a long life. A great one. I know you love her very much, but this is renal failure. We could do dialysis, but â¦”
His hand trembled. “So it's time?”
She delivered the news she so hated. “Yes. I think that would be best. And you know I would tell you if there was anything I could do. But it's time.”
Grown men did cry, and Mr. Simons wiped away a tear. “Can I stay? Hold her? I don't want her to be alone.”
Kat nodded. “Yes. She'd like that. I'll go get things ready and give you some privacy to say your good-byes.”
“Mr. December's here,” Angela warned as Kat unlocked a medicine cabinet.
“He's going to have to wait,” Kat replied, retrieving the vials she needed. She returned to the room, Mr. Simons's tears causing her to bite back her own. Pet owners had to see her as competent. Strong, yet sympathetic. Professional. She shaved off a small area of Pebble's fur and then administered the sedative. After the second medication, Pebbles slipped away quickly.
“Thank you.” Mr. Simons stroked Pebble's still body. Fresh tears began. “That was peaceful.”
Angela gently wrapped the animal in a blanket and took her from the room. “I'm sorry for your loss,” Kat said.
“What will Bam Bam do?” He mentioned his other cat.
“Later, when things have settled down, you and I can talk about whether Bam Bam needs a playmate,” she said. “I'll help you. But right now Bam Bam will need your full attention and love. He'll be grieving, too.”
Louise entered, and Mr. Simons followed her from the room. Kat undid her ponytail, scratched the top of her head, and then secured the strands again. She went to check on Jingle, and heard Jack. He cooed to the puppy in that baby talk that all animal lovers use, but that no one ever admits to. She watched him stroke the dog's head, his fingers gentle and soothing. He whispered in Jingle's ear. While Jingle's right ear twitched slightly, his eyes remained closed. Yet the dog seemed more peaceful.
“You sweet thing. I'm gonna get them for you. And you'll never hurt again. I promise.” He glanced up, sensing her presence. He reddened, caught. Who'd have predicted Mr. Rough and Tough had such a soft side?
Softening, she said, “I'm sure he likes you talking to him.”
“How's he doing?” He'd changed from his jeans and flannel shirt and now wore a pair of khakis and a blue oxford button-down that complimented his eyes.
Kat placed a hand on the dog's front right paw, one of the few areas that hadn't been burned. She touched Jingle as often as possible, letting him know she cared. “He's the same. We're keeping him sedated. The pain from the burns is unbearable. Later he'll need laser therapy and skin grafts, but we can't do those yet.”
“But he's okay.”
“We're constantly fighting off infection, so I can't rule anything out, but I am cautiously optimistic. His progress is promising.”
“Good. I need updated pictures.” He held out a small camera.
Kat was exhausted. She wanted to be alone, grieve for her role in the circle of life. “Tonight is not a good time.”
He sensed that something was bothering her. “Then when can I get those?”
“How about Monday morning at eight? We'll be changing the bandages, so that will be a good time.”
“I'll be here for that,” Jack said, putting the camera in his jacket pocket. “That's fine. The more evidence we can present to the jury of this dog's suffering, the better chance we have for a conviction. It's not only about demonstrating the horror of the act itself, but of the recovery this poor dog also has suffered.”
Kat tucked a loose strand behind her ear. “Do you know who did it?”
One simple nod. “Yes.”
After the day she'd had, she needed to know. “Who?”
“The boy's aunt and her boyfriend.”
Kat's hand flew up in front of her mouth as she gasped. “Billy's relatives? His own family?”
“Yes. Jingle bit the aunt's son, and she decided to punish the dog by ending his life. She bragged on Facebook, saying all dogs don't go to heaven and âsmell that doggie smoke.'”
“You have to be kidding me. That's sick.” Kat's whole body shook from the horrible revelation.
“Sick's an understatement. I'll be arresting her and her boyfriend within days. We only need a few more digital footprint pieces on the boyfriend, and we'll pick them both up. I want rock-solid arrests. I want convictions.”
Kat did too. She rubbed Jingle's paw, her touch gentle. Mr. Simons had loved Pebbles more than anything, and he'd gone home heartbroken. The people who'd hurt Jingle were the worst kind on earth. Kat's fury raged and her body shook.
“Hey, what's wrong?”
The day overwhelmed. “I just had to put a cat down and watch his owner unravel. This poor defenseless baby. Sweet Jingle. How could she do such a thing. â¦ I â¦ I â¦ I'd â¦”
Kat shuddered as well-controlled emotions broke through the dam. A tear dropped and then another, and she furiously wiped them away.
“Hey.” Jack folded her into his arms, and she went without hesitation. Cocooned, as if she belonged. “Yeah, I'd like to kill her too. But since that's not an option, I'm going to personally arrest her and her boyfriend and make sure it's the day's top news story. She's going to do hard time if I have anything to say about it. They both are.”
Kat sniffled, tried to stem the flow. “Justice is slow.”
“We're building an airtight case. They won't get away with this.”
“I hope so. For Jingle's sake.” Kat stepped out of Jack's embrace. She'd liked being in his arms a little too much. “I have to check on the kennels.”
“Can I tag along?”
Drained, Kat simply nodded. She didn't want to argue anymore. Jack followed as she went to visit both the stray animals and those being boarded. He helped her pet the excited dogs, scratched the heads of the purring cats. He had a magical touch. Cats rubbed against him, dogs quieted as he scratched behind their ears.
“I am really sorry about the cat.”
His tenderness struck the right cord. “Me, too. It's a part of life, but it's heartbreaking.”
They greeted a few more of her animals. “I'm sorry about how we left things today. That was not my intention. I wasn't trying to ambush you. You're different from most women I've met. In a good way.”
He couldn't put his finger on how, or why, but like the detective he was, knew he couldn't stop until he'd figured out the mystery. She didn't answer, just absorbed his words as she went to the next cat cage.
“So who's this?” he asked, and he trailed her, enjoying her company as she gave him some background on each animal. He wasn't in any real rush. She was his sole focus. “Are you sleeping here again?”
“Yes. My partner says he'll stay tomorrow night. We have couches in our offices for just such purposes and with Jingle's condition, in case anything happens, I don't want to leave him alone too long. There is a staff member here, even on Sundays.”
“You run a first-rate operation. You are impressive, Kat. I've never met someone as dedicated as you.”
He smiled, and his compliment warmed her heart. He reached out and touched her arm, and the simple movement stirring a dormant fire, a fire she needed to squelch lest she get burned. “Now that I am a partner, we shouldn't let things get muddled, especially as you are investigating me.”
“I responded to the complaint and dismissed it. It's clear there's no abuse.”
“Still, I'm not sure if it's best that we blur professional lines.”
He leaned against a table, assessed her with those all-seeing eyes. “Do you always do what's best?”
“Clearly not as I'm running a shelter with no permits.” She sighed and scratched the head of a two-year-old tabby.
Angela poked her head around the corner. “There you are.”
Kat jerked her finger out of the cage and put a startled hand on her chest. “You're still here?”
“I wanted to make sure Pebbles was ready for her cremation. And I wrote the sympathy card and put it in the mail.”
The clinic had a policy of sending cards. It was the least they could do. “That's sweet of you for taking on that job for me.”
“No problem. You can reward me with a big Christmas bonus. Did she eat?” This question was directed at Jack.
“Not that I know of.”
Angela gave Kat a pointed look. “Lunch was hours ago.” As proof, Kat's stomach rumbled. “See?”
Caught, Kat gave a weak chuckle. However, it cut the tension and lightened her mood. “I am hungry.”
“You need to eat. Let me take you somewhere,” Jack inserted.
Angela beamed. “Great idea. I'll hold down the fort until you get back. You need to get out of here for a while. Besides, you have remote access.”
“I can monitor Jingle's machines and watch him via my phone,” Kat explained. “I do need to stop by my house and feed my cats.”
“So go,” Angela urged. She made a shooing motion and shot Kat a pointed look. “Go hug your kitties so you'll feel better. I'll be here.”
She hesitated. “If you're sure â¦”
Angela practically pushed Kat out the door. “Go. I got this. And remember what I told you earlier.”
“What did she tell you earlier?” Jack asked.
“Nothing important,” Kat fibbed, allowing Jack to lead her toward an exit. She followed behind, noting his broad backside and the way his blond hair curled at the nape. She had an urge to touch those strands.
He assisted her into the SUV, her hand warming under his touch as he propelled her upward. He climbed into the driver's seat and leaned over to touch the clasp. “Buckled up?”
She nodded, wanting to trust him. But trust had failed her before. “Yes.”
“Then let's do this.”
Ten minutes later Jack easily found Kat's apartment, for when she'd said the one with the Christmas lights, she hadn't been joking. The brick two-family building across from the park was completely covered. Blinking multicolored strands hung from the flat roofline and lined each window and door. She had a set of lighted white reindeer and one of those inflatable Santa Claus figures in the postage-stamp-size front yard.
While the neighboring buildings on each side also sported strands of lights, Kat's outshone both.
He parked in the alley, behind her two-car garage, and followed her through the well-lit yard to the back door. Christmas lights adorned the backyard trees as well as the garage.
“You in a contest?” he asked.
She laughed, put the key in the back-door lock. “No, but I just love the lights and decorations; it makes even a bad day like today a little brighter this time of year. I can hang more decorations here than at the clinic, so I admittedly go a bit overboard. I love that people slow down when they drive by.”
She tugged the door open and turned off the first alarm as they stepped onto a small landing. Stairs led downstairs to the basement and also upward. “I'm on the second floor.”
They passed the door to the first-floor apartment, and Jack tried not to stare too hard at her backside. “So do your tenants like all the lights?”
“Well, they don't mind, and their kids always tell me how much they love them. You?”
“I don't mind looking at Christmas lights,” Jack replied as they climbed the stairs. She had a shapely backsideâtemptation was mere inches away. All he had to do was reach up. â¦ Instead he shoved his hands deeper into his jacket pockets as they reached the second-floor landing.
He noted with a cop's satisfaction that she had a second alarm that went off when they stepped into her kitchen. While she made quick work of the code, he assessed the area, committing to memory the Santa aprons hanging on pegs in her kitchen. “This way.”
In her living room, an ornament-covered live tree stopped inches short of the nine-foot ceiling. Upon their approach, a Siamese cat rose to its feet, arched its back and blinked. Then it stretched and sat on the edge of the couch. “That's Ty. He's a sweetheart. Pippa's around here somewhere, probably under the tree if she's not up in it. Make yourself at home. I'll only be a minute.”
Jack approached Ty, who clearly waited for a head scratch. Jack's phone buzzed; he grimaced at the caller ID. “Hi, Mom.”