Today I am proud to present Ruth J Hartman as my guest.
With her book Better Than Catnip she is making her debut with Astraea Press.
Roxy Williams adores cats. Always has. That’s why she devotes her life to running her stray cat shelter. But is that enough? Isn’t there a man out there who will love her for who she is? A special man who won’t try to change her or ask her to choose between him and her cats?
Max Weller has a problem. His son, Derek, must complete community service for fighting at school. The only available place is the stray cat shelter. But Derek is terrified of cats from a frightening childhood experience. How will they get through this traumatic experience?
Roxy and Max feel the strong attraction pulling them together as Max volunteers at the shelter, too. Will they be able to keep the spark alive? Or will Derek’s fears come between them?
Closer. Just a little closer. Can’t you smell the tuna in there? Roxy hunkered down behind the old, wooden park bench. The ground smelled of rich, dark dirt, after last night’s rain. Her legs cramped from sitting in a strange position. What was taking so long? Usually hungry cats couldn’t resist tuna. This was her fourth venture into this park for the feral cat colony. She had to trap them one by one. As curious as cats were, they wouldn’t normally follow another one into a live-trap cage. Even for tuna. Once every millennium, she’d get lucky with a double. Most days, though, it was one per customer.
Snap! The trap door slammed shut.
“Yes!” Roxy whispered, as she pumped her fist. She stood up from her hideout, stretching stiff leg, arm and back muscles. Something popped in her knee. Ah. Much better. Even though the trapped cat couldn’t escape, she tiptoed. Her tennis shoes slipped on damp leaves. Uh-oh! She windmilled her arms. Sliding forward then back. Finally regaining her balance. Whew. Thank goodness she didn’t fall. She waited, willing her breathing to slow.
The cat stared at her. Unblinking. Shoot. She tried so hard to be quiet. Not exactly her strength. And those wild cats had enough to worry about without her scaring them to death. She bent over the cage for a closer look.
“Well, hello there. Aren’t you a beauty?”
The orange tiger, which appeared to be about eight months old, backed up against the wire of the cage. Its brown eyes as large as quarters.
“I know,” Roxy crooned. “I’m sorry to have to do it this way. But it’s not safe out here for you guys. And you wouldn’t have just come to me on your own, now would you?”
The cat hissed, baring its teeth. Its feral growl low in its throat.
She leaned over and picked up the cage by the thick wire handle on top. She wore leather gloves. Sometimes these wild cats could be ferocious. Tiger kitty hissed again, puffing up his fur. Bristling it to appear larger. Roxy felt tiny claws meet up with the outside of her glove. But the leather was so thick, even the miniature tiger’s claws couldn’t penetrate it. She smirked. Hadn’t she been doing this for a long time? Miss Roxy knew the drill.
“Now just what have you guys been up to since I left? Hmmm?” No one answered. Seventy-two eyes stared at her from half as many faces. Furry faces. And the eyes staring at her were of the feline variety. “Have you all got each other’s tongues?”
“You’re here early, Roxy.”
She glanced up to see her assistant and good friend, Teresa Lynn, standing in the door to her office. “Hey. Yep, I caught another feral cat from the park. Tiger kitty’s now sulking in the back room in the trap. He finished the smelly tuna, though.” She chuckled. “And I decided to get an early start on those adoption forms today. The shelter can never have too many willing pet-parents, right?”
Teresa Lynn nodded. “Exactly.”
Roxy washed her hands in the bathroom, drying them on a thick towel. Pushing open the door to her office, she grimaced. So much paperwork on her desk. When was she supposed to get it all done? Taking care of the cats always came first. They might not be thrilled if she sat at her desk to order supplies and check adoption forms before filling their food dishes. She backed up and shut the door. Later. It wasn’t going anywhere.
She stopped in Teresa Lynn’s doorway, watching her blonde assistant check through their huge stack of mail. They always hoped there’d be donations.
“Found one!” She waved the envelope at her boss.
“Great,” said Roxy. “See if there’re any more. We’re coming up short on the mortgage this month. Not that it hasn’t happened before. But the bank isn’t loving us right now. So what’s new?”
“I’ll keep looking.” Teresa Lynn continued to flip though the stack. “Sorry. Just the one.”
“Rats,” Roxy muttered as she made her way down the narrow corridor between the cages of stray cats. “Who’s hungry? Anybody? Raise your left paw if you want some breakfast.”
Every fur-bearing creature in the place began to pace and howl. Tails flipped and whiskers twitched. This was her favorite time of day. Everyone seemed glad to see her. Roxy filled flimsy plastic bowls with cheap cat food, the only kind they could afford. One by one, cats purred and pranced, eager for his or her turn to gobble their rations.
Along with breakfast, each cat received a quick chin-scratch. Later on, they’d be let out of their pens in stages to frolic and mingle. Then, Roxy and Teresa Lynn could give them more individualized petting and attention. Roxy especially loved kitty happy hour. She sighed. Yep, when the purrs reached the three hundred decibel level.
Roxy lifted one of the cats out of his cage. His fur tickled her arms. So soft. “There now. Doesn’t it feel better?” An orange tabby named Oliver resembled the Cheshire Cat as Roxy brushed his long, tangled fur. “You just need a haircut don’t you, my little man? Or maybe a nice French braid.” She pictured him with blue ribbons woven into the braid. Not like she’d actually do it. But wouldn’t it be cute?
Teresa Lynn walked up, stopping beside Roxy. She giggled as she watched them. “You talk to them as if they were human.”
“Well, they think they’re people, so I guess I see them that way, too.” She shrugged.
They both jumped and stared at the front door as someone rattled the doorknob. Were those pesky neighborhood kids knocking on her door then running away again? Roxy petted Oliver one last time and put him back in his cage. She walked to the door to peer through the glass. “What do you want? We don’t open for another two hours.” Go wreak havoc somewhere else.
The boy standing outside the door was frowning. His navy, hooded sweatshirt was too large for his skinny frame, and his dark hair needed a haircut, badly. Roxy waited for him to leave, but he stayed planted right where he stood. What in the world?
She made a second attempt to dissuade her frumpy visitor. “Um, sorry, but we’re closed. If you want to see the cats, can you come back at ten?”
The boy stared through the glass at her with large blue eyes. As she peered closer, she realized he was crying. “I can’t stand it,” she muttered. “Why is this kid standing out there turning on the waterworks?” She sighed as she unlocked the door and opened it for her unwelcome guest.
He glanced around behind him as if he expected there to be someone watching him. He stared up at her. But he didn’t move. Were his feet glued to the sidewalk?
“Well,” she said, “you got me to open the door. Do you want to come on in?” Roxy opened the door wider. It creaked on its rusty hinges. What was with this kid, anyway? She didn’t have all day. Things to do, cats to brush.
He shuffled inside but still didn’t say anything. Every few seconds, he wiped the tears from his face with the too-long sleeve of his sweatshirt. Roxy waited for him to speak. The boy didn’t accommodate. What was she supposed to do now? Tap dance?
“Derek! What’s taking so long?”
Roxy jumped at the sound of the deep, loud voice coming from just outside the door. A gorgeous man popped his head around the door to the shop entrance. Her eyes widened as she gazed up into the face attached to the voice. Deep brown eyes the color of dark chocolate peered down into hers. And the shoulders on the man were like boulders. She momentarily forgot how to breathe.
Dark-chocolate-eyed man located the object of his search. “Derek? Oh there you are. What’s taking so long? Can you start today or not?”
Derek, the sullen kid, stared at his dirty, floppy, red tennis shoes. He shrugged his shoulders but remained mute. Roxy remembered to inhale. She found her voice.
“And you are…?” She stared pointedly at chocolate man. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. It’s what she’d checked first.
“Didn’t they call you?”
Roxy kept staring at the man as she crossed her arms over her pink Henley shirt. Better not to let him see her shallow breathing.
“By the blank look on your face, I see they didn’t.”
“Look Mr. uh…Max. I’m busy. As you can see, I have a bunch of furry children here clamoring for my attention. And there’s only so many seconds in a minute, you know? So, maybe you could tell me why you’re in here with, um, Derek.”
Gorgeous Max ran his large hand through his short, dark hair. “Okay. The people at the juvenile detention center were supposed to call you a few days ago. My son, Derek, got himself into, shall we say, a little skirmish, and now needs to do community service.” He paused to look down at her. “They didn’t call you, huh? Amazing. Our fine city officials on the ball as usual.”
Roxy sighed. She pushed her chin-length hair behind her ears. “I see where this is going now. You want Derek to work here to help complete his community service, right?”
“Yes, if it works for you. I’m sorry to spring this on you. I stupidly assumed they would have called you and everything would be set in place already.”
Roxy glanced around. The thirty-six cats seemed to multiply before her eyes. Was it her imagination, or was the meowing getting louder? She definitely needed the help. For free. However, she had doubts about sullen, seemingly mute Derek. But what choice did she have? It would be stupid on her part to turn down any help. Besides, maybe Max would stick around to help supervise his son. And it wouldn’t bother her. Not at all.
She cleared her throat and focused on the son’s problem instead of the dad’s hunkiness. “Okay, Max,” she said. “My name’s Roxy Williams. I think we can help you out, so here’s the deal. Derek would have to be here every morning at eight a.m. to feed the cats. Then he would let them out in stages so they could get some playtime. Afterward, he’d get the glamorous task of cleaning stinky litter boxes.”
Derek found his tongue. Eight a.m. every day? No way. And clean up after cats? I hate cats. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen.” He crossed his arms.
Max frowned at his son. “Oh, yes it will. You’ll do everything this nice lady tells you, and you’ll do it without your usual moping, complaining and sulking. Plus, you’ll be thankful you’re getting to do this instead of spending your entire summer in juvenile detention. Is that clear, Derek?”
The skinny boy mumbled something Roxy was sure was not for polite conversation. She raised her eyebrows.
“Excuse me?” boomed Max.
Derek jumped, and so did Roxy.
“Yes, Dad,” answered Derek, who still appeared sullen but seemed to have the smarts not to mumble again.
Roxy glanced up at Max. It was all she could do to squelch a ‘Yes, Dad’ herself. The man certainly had a set of pipes. “Were you wanting him to start right away?”
“If it’s not a problem. And I’ll make sure you get the paperwork from the detention center to keep track of his hours.”
“Sure. Fine. We’ve had a couple of other kids come through here for similar reasons. Glad to help.” Roxy nodded, but still had serious doubts about Derek’s willingness to do what he was told. This might end up being even more work for her if she had to spend a lot of time going over Derek’s duties with him. And time was one commodity she did not have in abundance.
Max thanked her and left. Roxy hated to see him go. But why? Maybe it had something to do with the fact she hadn’t had a date with someone who wasn’t a troll in over a year. Mr. Weller was the finest looking man she’d seen since…well, ever. With his dark hair and eyes, they could be one of those cute brother-sister looking couples. She’d only just met the man, yet she pictured herself leaping into his big, strong arms and planting a kiss on his luscious lips.