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EDITOR'S NOTE:
Denise Little

ESSAY:
MY NOT-SO-SECRET IDENTITIES

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
aka Kristine Grayson

STORIES:
Kristine Grayson: The Charming Way
Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
Helmie
Debbie Mumford: Reality Bites
Jean Rabe:
Merry Maid
Stephanie Writt:
Before She Left
& After She Returned

Dayle A. Dermatis: The Best Catch
Kate Pavelle
: The River Pearl
Laura Ware
: To Live a Life
Petronella Glover
: A Sight for Sore Eyes
 

SERIALIZATION:
Laura Resnick: Galatea: A Modern Myth
(Part 3)

RECOMMENDED BOOKS:
C.S. DeAvilla

WRITER'S CORNER:
Denise Little:
Electronic Publishing:
A Brave New World
Julie Pitzel: Tell, Don't Show

Kristine Kathryn Rusch usually writes romance under the name Kristine Grayson. Occasionally, though, she will commit romance under her real name (Rusch). If you liked her novelettes in this issue, pick up The Death of Davy Moss, the romance novel she's most proud of. To find out more about her work, go to www.kriswrites.com. This is the author’s second appearance in Heart’s Kiss.

 

HELMIE

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Cats aren’t psychic, but they have something—a push, a nudge, something that enables them to communicate with their owners (which is the wrong word all by itself. Their people) in a way that those cats don’t communicate with anyone else.

Kelsie was counting on that nudge: it was like a little golden cord that connected the cat to the owner. If the nudge didn’t exist in this case then she was screwed, following a hunch into a tiny opening in some blackberry bushes, sliding into a slimy pile of dead leaves, and trying very hard not to tumble into the slender stream that made this part of Seavy County a designated wetland.

Kelsie was cold and wet from shoving her way down an animal-only path into the weeds, looking for a pampered cat who had probably died of shock at the cruelty in the world. She had the cat’s soft-sided carrier underneath one arm, hampering her movement even more.

She wanted to dump the carrier, but she brought it on the slim chance that she might be successful—and if she was, she would need the carrier to get the cat out of here.

Big if.

The gold cord had led her here, to the wetlands. How a cat would end up in a wetlands was beyond her. Although this cat didn’t voluntarily end up anywhere. He’d been dumped by a Grade A Number One Asshole, the initial inheritor of Malkivekio estate, who figured he could strip the estate of every dime before anyone figured out that he didn’t deserve a penny of it.

Like many Grade A Number One Assholes, he underestimated everyone around him, from the judges to the entire community of Rickets Rock. He had no idea how everyone here looked after one another.

Including the four-legged citizens of this tiny community. The Grade A Number One Asshole also had no idea that Wilhelm Henrich Otto von Holbrook Malkivekio was famous in these parts, although most people knew him as The Helmster or simply Helmie.

Helmie was an unusual cat in that he loved travel, he loved people, and most of all, he loved Rupert Malkivekio. They went everywhere together. Except the hospital, that last night when Rupert died.

She was following a gold thread only she could see, one that was fading because Helmie was probably beginning to realize that Rupert was dead. Or maybe the thread vanished when one of the two beings that created the connection died.

She didn’t know. She only knew she had successfully found pets dozens of times using these connections.

She had just never done so with a dead owner and a cat who’d been dumped by a Grade A Number One Asshole.

Fucking idiot jerkwad. If she ever got her hands on that Grade A Number One Asshole, she would—

Well, she wasn’t sure what she would do. Because she had vowed to never ever ever use her powers for evil. And what she wanted to do to that Grade A Number One Asshole might not qualify as evil per se, but it certainly wouldn’t be very nice.

She was all about the nice. Except when someone did something mean to cats. Or dogs. Or children. Or other helpless creatures.

She had to clear her mind, keep following that simple little gold thread, and remind herself.

She was all about the nice.

 

The cat was worth 6.5 million dollars. Only ten percent of the estate, but still, 6.5 million dollars was probably more money than Travis Schiller would earn in his lifetime. Although that was just a guess. He certainly wasn’t going to do the actual math because it would depress him.

More than doing this job was depressing him. How did a private investigator find a cat? You couldn’t interview friends and family about his behavior patterns or how he spent his day.

Although, for his sins, Travis had done that. And discovered that little Helmie had had busy days with lots of patterns until Rupert Malkivekio died.

It would have made Travis’s life easier if Malkivekio had died under mysterious circumstances because at least Travis would have been investigating a murder rather than a lost cat.

That it would be finalized was a no-brainer. The only reason Travis was involved at all was that Malkivekio’s former boyfriend, Edmund, had swooped in from Portland with a fifteen-year-old will naming him the beneficiary. Edmund’s mistake was to set up shop in Malkivekio’s beautiful home overlooking the Pacific rather than run off with the ill-gotten gains.

Everyone in Rickets Rock knew that Malkivekio had moved to the tiny town because of a bad break-up more than a decade ago. The entire town knew that the break-up made Malkivekio swear off relationships. And as he got sicker, he made sure the town knew it would get money for services and supplies, his beloved nephew Rupert would get the bulk of the estate, and the stupid cat was going to get enough money to let it live in luxury for the rest of its days.

If its days proved too short or the nephew tried to off the cat, the cat’s money would go elsewhere. In fact, Malkivekio had set up his estate so that if anyone messed with the cat, they would lose everything, and then some.

Just like Edmund was going to do. He had spent more than a hundred thousand dollars of money that did not belong to him, and was currently sitting in the Seavy County jail on fraud and embezzlement charges, among other things.

Travis had initially started on this case when Rafael’s lawyer, Don Ingraeo, had contacted him on the side, asking him if he could sniff around Edmund’s Portland place, as well as Edmund’s digital accounts, to see if Edmund had known that he had been disinherited years ago.

Don knew that Travis had been trying to move his business from Portland to Rickets Rock for months now. There wasn’t as much work in Rickets Rock as there was in Portland, but the cost of living here was lower. And Travis had some money socked away.

More now, because he’d solved the mystery of Edmund in all of thirty minutes. Turned out Edmund was one of those people, the kind who took to social media whenever he felt aggrieved, which in Edmund’s case, was often. Apparently, in 2010, after he had seen a picture of Malkivekio with Helmie. Edmund shared the photo, and wrote:

You know, I was just coming to grips with the fact that Rupie had disinherited me for his lazy nephew—after all Rupie and I meant to each other!—but look at this! Rupie has gone gaga for a stupid cat. How much you wanna bet the cat will get more money from Rupie than I will?

Slam, meet dunk, as Travis had said to Don. That little moment of venting proved that Edmund had known he wasn’t entitled to anything under that will. Rather than seeing if a later will showed up, Edmund swooped in, took all the cash out of the easily accessible accounts, and set up shop, expecting to get everything—apparently not realizing it was the state’s duty to find all possible heirs.

Not realizing that the local lawyer had a version of the will from 2014.

Not realizing that “Rupie” hadn’t exactly been shy about discussing what a flaming asshole Edmund was.

Edmund, the flaming asshole, also decided to get revenge on the cat. He hadn’t taken Helmie to the local vet to put down; apparently, even Edmund could figure out that would be a red flag.

Once Edmund was in jail, and Travis got the assignment of finding the 6.5 million dollar critter, Edmund confessed to what he had done. He had tossed Helmie out of the house.

“I didn’t just kick his dirty little purebred ass outside,” Edmund had said. “I took him to that horrid wetlands place and set him free.”

For a minute, Travis worried that Edmund had murdered the cat (and it also worried Travis that he thought of killing a cat, in this instance, as murder). But Edmund had disabused him of that.

“I wanted that cat to suffer,” Edmund had said, his beady eyes narrowing. “I wanted it to suffer as much as I had.”

Thank goodness Edmund was behind bars, because otherwise Travis would have shown him how suffering felt. Travis had a fondness for cats that he admitted to no one.

Ah, hell. He had a fondness for cats, and dogs, and most mammals not of the human variety. He even liked children, which had to be some kind of curse.

The last thing Travis wanted to do was find Helmie, dead, down in the wetlands. Although, Travis knew, if Helmie’s luck had been particularly bad, Travis wouldn’t find a body at all. By the time Travis got there, he’d probably find a few bones and some leftover fur.

Travis shuddered, then parked his 4 x 4 in the parking area near the wetlands, next to a Prius that looked like it had been in the same spot for most of the afternoon. There were no other cars here. In fact, the only way to know that this was the entry to the wetlands was weird signage that warned people not to damage anything, or they would be prosecuted under some wetlands law designation.

There wasn’t even a path into the tangle of bushes small trees and grass that had grown up along the parking area. There was, however, a gigantic old growth stump, standing at least three feet high, half hidden by moss and ivy, that people clearly stood on to look at what lay beyond.

He got out of the 4 x 4 and glanced at the Prius. It was covered in pollen, but that could have happened this afternoon. The trees were shedding all over this little burg, even though the usual tree pollen season should have ended a month ago.

Travis glanced inside the car, saw a camera that looked somewhat expensive, a purse half covered by a blanket, and a coat. Then he tried the door. It was locked.

He hoped nothing had happened to the car’s owner. He would keep an eye on this.

He walked around it and peered at the mess beyond. This was where Edmund had said he dumped the cat. No one reported seeing a dead white cat on this road in the past few days, and Travis had driven slowly near the sides of the road looking, not that it would make any difference. That whole fur-bones-snack-for-coyotes thing again.

He climbed on the old growth stump, and peered over the mountain of weeds. Ever so faintly he could hear the trickle of water. And…a voice?

He frowned, concentrated, then realized, yes indeed, he heard a voice. A female voice. He couldn’t tell if the woman was speaking softly or if she was far away. It didn’t sound like she was in distress, but he couldn’t really tell, not from here.

Travis sighed, climbed off the old growth stump, and grabbed his binoculars, which he should have done when he got out of the 4 x 4. The fact that he hadn’t had them showed just how much he hated this job.

Travis Schiller, Pet Detective. Not a good thing to have on his resume.

He climbed back onto the old growth stump and began to scan the underbrush. He thought maybe he saw movement down the hill, but he couldn’t be certain.

He couldn’t be certain of anything.

 

Kelsie nearly missed Helmie. She had been looking down, when she should have been looking up.

The remains of the gold cord was hard to see in this thick forestation. There was a lot of brown down here, and dark shadows underneath tree branches, places where the sun hadn’t shown in years.

It smelled of rotting leaves and wet ground. Kelsie couldn’t tell if the sogginess was part of the stream or if the ground here just never dried.

She had to squint to see the gold cord. It seemed to end in a large knot of tree branches. She looked at them, saw nothing except damp grayness, glistening grayness. She looked away, searching for the continuation of the cord.

But she didn’t see it.

And then she realized that what she had thought was glistening grayness had actually been movement.

She sucked in a breath.

She had been looking for a cat. A beautifully groomed white cat, a Persian with a pushed-in little face, and expressive blue eyes.

But a cat left to his own devices out here in the wilderness would lose his grooming pretty quickly, and he certainly wouldn’t be white for long—which would probably be a good thing.

White creatures in the wild usually didn’t last days. At least, not in a wild without snow or other white camouflage.

“Helmie?” she asked softly. She had learned long ago how to approach a terrified cat. Terrified cats didn’t move. They did their best to make themselves invisible.

So whatever movement she had seen was something she wouldn’t see again.

She glanced to her right, and saw the cord. It remained, faint as ever.

She didn’t like how faint it was, though. Maybe that faintness had nothing to do with Rupert’s death. Maybe it had to do with Helmie’s health, or lack thereof.

She didn’t know enough about this part of her abilities to know. No one had ever taught her how to use her powers; she had learned everything she knew on her own.

Human stuff had become pretty easy to master—there was, surprisingly, a lot about it online. But when it came to animals, most people with her kind of magic denied that it worked with animals at all.

She made herself concentrate. Doubts didn’t help. Neither did fears.

She reached out with her right hand, imbued it with just a bit of transfer magic, and touched the cord.

Touching the cord was a risk: if she did it wrong, she could make the cord invisible to her. If she let her emotions overtake her, she might destroy the cord altogether.

Instead, she thought of it as a soft, frayed thread, and caressed it gently, hoping just a bit of the remaining Rupert energy would touch her.

“Helmie?” she asked again, and this time her voice was just a bit deeper. She also found herself elongating the first “e” in a way she never would have done on her own.

The tiny spell worked.

She heard a meow, faint and short.

She let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding.

“I’m coming to get you, Helmie,” she said. “Please, stay where you are.”

The cord seemed brighter to her now, which might’ve come from the cat or maybe it came from the fact she was channeling what remained of Rupert.

She looked into that knot of branches, saw an old board across them, with a soggy blanket pushed up against it. The remains of a tree fort, maybe, or just a little seat over the water, where someone could sit on a sunny afternoon.

Pushed up against the blanket was a grayish black creature. Her heart sank.

“Helmie?” she asked one more time.

The creature looked up at her, and that was when she saw the classic Persian smushed face, and the blue blue eyes. The cat meowed pathetically.

“Helmie,” she said. “Poor baby.”

The cat crawled to the edge of the board, but didn’t go any further. His once-lovely white fur was black and matted in several places, probably covered with mud.

She carefully pulled out the soft-sided carrier. It glowed golden. She hadn’t realized until this moment that it was still imbued with Rupert energy too.

She opened it, and braced it on the edge of the board. Most cat owners told her to hide cat carriers, but Helmie had traveled all over Rickets Rock in one. In fact, Helmie had nearly a dozen cat carriers in his not-so-little closet in Rupert’s home. She had picked the carrier easiest to drag with her into whatever wilds she found herself.

Helmie let out a little meep, and scuttled for the carrier. He slipped himself into it, weighing it down. She nearly dropped the whole thing, but somehow managed to keep it—and herself—balanced. Without moving much, she reached around the front, and sealed the carrier closed.

Then she peered in through the little window at the top. Helmie looked up at her, his blue eyes abnormally moist. If she didn’t know better, she would think the cat was crying with relief.

Then she realized: he was relieved.

He was purring.

“Oh, Helmie,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

 

Definitely a female voice. And it wasn’t in distress. It was talking to someone.

It—she. Travis shook his head.

He was too focused on this weird-ass case. He should have been thinking about other things.

He let the binoculars drop to his chest. They weren’t helping anyway. His ears were doing a much better job. He kept thinking he was hearing the word “Helmie.”

Travis hoped that wasn’t just wishful thinking.

He needed a way into this tangle, some way to make it to that voice without spooking it or, if the cat was there, Helmie himself.

Then he heard rustling, followed by cursing, followed by cooing.

The cooing surprised him.

Travis had to listen closely. He heard:

It’s okay, Helmie, really. It’s just this path is built for creatures your size, not mine. We’ll get you to the car, and then we’ll get you home. Poor baby—ouch! Dammit! Jesus!—sorry, Helmie. It’s okay….

So the mystery woman had found Helmie. Or thought she had. Which relieved Travis before he realized that someone else had Helmie, and if she knew how much the damn cat was worth….

He was trying to figure out how to handle this when a hand clawed its way out of the bushes. A tiny dirty hand, using the ground to pull itself forward.

“This is the tough part, Helmie,” the woman was saying, “because we’re going to have to get both you and me through here without sticking you with any of these picker bushes. Lucky me, I’m the one who gets to get stuck.”

Travis would have pulled the bushes back or grabbed her hand or helped in some way, but he figured that would scare her which would make her scream or something, and then they’d lose Helmie all over again. (If, indeed, the cat she found was Helmie.)

So Travis just waited beside his 4 x 4.

The woman got her shoulders out of those bushes, then somehow scooted around and bent backwards into the bushes again. She was slight and covered in mud. Her Prius wouldn’t appreciate that.

She probably didn’t either. Her thin shirt was so wet that it clung to her back, revealing the knobs of her spinal cord. She wasn’t shivering, though. She probably had no idea how cold it really was out here.

He reached into the bed of his 4 x 4 and pulled out one of his emergency blankets. The thing was old and probably smelled of diesel, but it would be warm.

He clutched it, as she slid backwards out of the little rabbit hole, clutching something.

He expected to see a beautiful white cat.

Instead, what he saw was a mud-streaked cloth cat carrier, in lurid pink-and-red gingham. That looked like one of Helmie’s cat carriers. The damn things had been stashed in a walk-in closet and labeled by event or weather or, in the case of some of them, holiday. Travis had seen a similar carrier, covered with little red hearts, marked Valentine’s Day.

He had brought a carrier as well, although the one he chose was a brown one that was labeled Every Day, as if everyone had a variety of cat carriers and changed them like some people changed shirts.

“It’s okay, Helmie,” the woman said. “Don’t squirm. I’ve got you. I just have to get you into the car, and then we can go home.”

She stood up, cradling the cat carrier, but didn’t turn around.

She was as tiny as he had guessed she was when he had seen her hand. Her hair might’ve been blond, but natural or dyed, he couldn’t tell, because it was wet in various places and covered with little twigs, even littler red berries, and pollen (making her hair green in some spots).

A surge of gratitude ran through him. If, indeed, she had Helmie, she had just saved Travis from the indignity of crawling through the dirt to get the cat.

If the cat would have even come to him.

“Okay,” she said, her tone a bit more businesslike. “I have to find my keys. I’m going to set you on the car—eeep!

She had turned around at that last second, and immediately saw Travis. She wrapped her arms protectively around the cloth cat carrier, and her face squinched into a fierce expression. She looked like a wood nymph with a terrible temper.

Her eyes were a sea blue, and she had a tiny nose, with a dollop of mud on its tip. Another smudge of mud ran alongside her cheeks, and a streak ran across her mouth, as if she had wiped the back of a muddy hand across it in an unthinking moment.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked.

He raised his eyebrows. “I could ask the same thing,” he said.

“I’m—I’m—it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m on my way out of here.”

He opened the blanket he was holding. “I bet you’re cold,” he said. “I got this out of the truck for you. I think it’s probably not the cleanest thing, not that it matters.”

Her mouth flapped open, then closed again. She shook her head. “I—I—I don’t need a blanket. I need to get out of here.”

“With The Helmster?” Travis asked. “Are you even sure that is The Helmster?”

She stood taller, if that was even possible, and then said, “Who are you again?”

He decided to come clean. “My name is Travis Schiller. The estate hired me to find Helmie. I’d like to take him to the court—”

“That’s not possible,” she snapped. “The estate hired me, and I’m taking care of Helmie.”

She whirled away from the blanket, patted her pocket, found some keys. With her other hand, she still clung to the cat carrier.

He didn’t blame her for her skepticism about his identity. He was feeling a little put out himself. Why hire him to be a (sigh) pet detective if they already had one on the case? And one, if he admitted it to himself, looked more like a clichéd pet detective than he ever would.

But she had brought up a good point. Did she even have a right to deal with Helmie?

“Are you sure that’s Helmie?” he asked. “Helmie is white, you know.”

“Helmie is not white. He’s a red point Persian.” She still cradled the cat carrier as she headed to the driver’s side of the Prius.

“Well, yeah,” Travis said, “but the cat you have in there looks gray.”

“And what color am I?” she snapped. “Mud brown, right? Because if you judge someone who’s been in that wetland by her appearance, then you’re misjudging her.”

He almost said he’d love to see how she cleaned up, but he knew she’d take that wrong. Or rather, she would probably take it like he meant it. Because he liked her, despite—or maybe because of—her attitude.

“Tell you what,” he said, “let’s take Helmie in together.”

“Tell you what,” she said, turning around, holding her keys firmly in one hand. “Back off.”

“Look,” he said. “I don’t know you. I at least introduced myself—”

“Yeah, and that means nothing, because for all I know the Grade A Number One Asshole’s lawyer could have hired you, not Helmie’s people.” Her blue eyes sparked with anger. He loved the way she emphasized Grade A Number One Asshole like it was not just a name, but a permanent indictment.

Of course, she hadn’t properly identified the asshole. For all Travis knew, she could have been referring to poor Rafael, whose inheritance had gotten exceptionally complicated.

“Tell you what,” Travis said. “I’ll pull out my phone, and I’ll call the man who hired me and I’ll put the call on speaker.”

“For all I know you could fake that,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows. “Faked what? I had no idea that I’d run into you.”

The fierce line of her mouth turned into a frown of disgust. “Oh. Okay. Good point. Call away.”

Travis pulled out his phone. She leaned on her Prius and kept Helmie’s carrier cradled in her arms. He would have recommended that she put Helmie inside one of the vehicles, but that was probably a bad idea. Right now, Helmie was probably happy to be held, and holding him would probably keep him warmer than putting him in the car would.

“Tell you what,” he said as he held his phone flat so they could both see it. “I’ll call if you wrap the blanket around yourself. Not just for you, but for Helmie. He needs warmth now.”

Her face softened just a little. His concern for Helmie clearly touched her.

“Okay,” she said. “Deal.”

With one hand, he wrapped the blanket around her, and tucked the edges in around her neck.

“This thing stinks,” she said. “Where did you keep it? In the gas tank?”

“In the bed of the truck,” he said apologetically. “For emergencies.”

She nodded, then looked pointedly at his phone. He nodded, then thumb-dialed Don Ingraeo. Don’s legal secretary, the formidable Annabelle, answered. Travis told her it was urgent, and she put him right through.

Annabelle’s voice was enough to make the woman’s frown fade. Apparently she was working for Don as well—or at least had been hired by him. Which kinda irritated Travis. There was no reason for him to be on this ridiculous case if this woman was already on it.

“Trav?” Don answered fast.

The woman tilted her head, apparently recognizing the voice.

“Hey, Don,” Travis said. “I’m with a woman who seems to have found Helmie. She says—”

“She found him? Really? Helmie? Holy crap, that’s great news. I thought we would never find that cat, which was going to cause all kinds of legal problems—”

“Yeah, I know,” Travis said, watching the woman over the phone. She was staring at it, and her frown had returned. Apparently, she didn’t like the reference to Helmie as a problem to be solved rather than a missing creature. “She says she’s working on the case too, and she won’t let me bring Helmie to you.”

“Don,” the woman said sharply. “It’s Kelsie. I have Helmie. He’s a mess. I’m not giving him to this guy. This cat is traumatized.”

“Okay, Kels.” Don clearly knew her, which meant he hired her too, which meant that he had put both Travis and this Kelsie on the case. Why, Travis had no idea, but it bugged him.

He didn’t want to say that here, though, not in front of her.

“I can call Rafael,” Don was saying. “Apparently, the cat has a regular groomer who comes to the house. I think we should take Helmie home, and let Rafael and the groomer take it from there.”

“Ah,” Kelsie said. “It may not be that easy. He might need me to stay with Helmie for a day or two.”

Travis was frowning at her. What kind of ploy was this?

“What did you do?” Don asked, and the question sounded fond.

“I might have tapped into some remaining Rupert energy to find Helmie.” She sounded embarrassed.

“He thinks you’re Rupert?” Don asked.

Travis felt his brain twist sideways. Cats weren’t stupid. Surely Don knew that. Cats judged by smell and size and movement, and Helmie had to know that the tiny person holding him was much smaller than Rupert Malkivekio. Not to mention female. Not to mention prettier. Not to mention—

“Not quite,” Kelsie said. “But he’s clingy right now, and I don’t feel right abandoning him. Because, you know.”

“Okay,” Don said, as if she hadn’t said anything weird at all. “Can you do that at the house? Because I think it’s important for Helmie to go home, not just for his sake, but for legal reasons.”

That irritated look returned to her face, but she nodded. “I just need to stop home to pick up some stuff. I’m covered in mud from head to toe. I’m going to need clothing, and some supplies, and—”

“Tell you what,” Don said in a tone that made Travis uncomfortable. It was Don’s do this my way for legal reasons tone, the tone Don had used on Travis when he urged Travis to find Helmie. “Why don’t you let Travis get your stuff? You go with Helmie.”

“I don’t know Travis,” she said, staring at him. “I have no idea why you put him on this when you hired me.”

Well, there it was, stated clearly for everyone to hear.

Don sighed. He wasn’t dumb. He probably knew that Travis was wondering the same thing. Don had probably hoped he could avoid this conversation entirely, and here he was having it with both of them at the same time.

“Um, well, frankly, Kelsie,” Don said. “What you do is impossible to explain, and Rafael wanted Helmie home. So did the judge.”

“Don’t bring her into it,” Kelsie said. “She knows what I do.”

“Yes, but if Helmie was…no more…then we needed—”

“Someone legit for court, I get it.” Kelsie sounded relatively reasonable, like someone would when they’d heard this before, but she was glaring at Travis’s phone as if her very vision could make the thing explode. “Okay, fine.”

“Travis is trustworthy,” Don said. “He’s one of the best detectives I’ve ever worked with. He’s bonded and all of that crap, so he won’t steal from you or do anything wrong—”

Her gaze met Travis’s again.

“—and that would be better than sending Annabelle in again, wouldn’t it? I mean that’s my only option other than having the estate buy you new clothes.”

Kelsie’s frown had deepened at the name Annabelle.

“All right, fine,” Kelsie said, sounding annoyed. “I’ll let this guy I don’t know into my house, on your say so.”

She was staring at Travis as if she could will him into honesty. He was a bit surprised. He would have figured that any woman—any person, really—would have opted for the new clothes.

“I could take the cat,” he said lamely.

“You cannot take the cat,” she snapped. “Haven’t you been listening?”

“I’m sure Helmie could be without you for an hour—”

“No,” she said so curtly that she shut him down entirely. “Don, I’m taking Helmie home. Warn Rafael, get the groomer there, and find someone who knows what Rupert did to make Helmie calm down after a stressful day.”

Really? Travis worked hard at keeping his eyebrows down, and the surprise off his face. What was this cat, a little god? He was more pampered than any child Travis had ever seen. Than damn near any adult Travis had ever met.

“It’ll all be arranged,” Don said. “You’ll be there when?”

“It’ll take at least twenty minutes. The Grade A Number One Asshole dumped Helmie at the wetlands turnout. Poor Helmie has been surviving in some tree fort that someone built years ago. I have no idea how he found it, but he did, and it kept him alive, barely. We’ll probably need a vet too.”

The mention of the vet made Travis’s brain kick in. He wasn’t quite sure why it had shut off—the woman or the cat rescue or the strangeness of the moment, or all three.

“Don, just realized that I have to go with…Kelsie…” Travis looked at her to make sure he got her name right. She nodded once, curtly. “…to the house. We’re going to need photographs of every stage. I think you should get the prosecutor to add an animal cruelty charge.”

“Only if you get pictures of where Helmie was,” Don said, as if that were an easy thing.

“I’m not going back down there,” Kelsie said, “and neither is Helmie.”

“I can do that later,” Travis said. He’d bring a telephoto lens, and the proper gear. “Right now, we have to get this cat home.”

“Damn straight,” Don said. “I’ll get Helmie’s vet, his groomer, and his girlfriend to meet you at the house.”

“Helmie has a girlfriend?” Travis asked, a little stunned.

“Why not?” Don said drily. “He has everything else.”

And then he hung up.

Kelsie stared at the phone. “That was mean,” she said.

“About Helmie?” Travis was inclined to agree with Don. Travis had no regular doctor, and he certainly didn’t have a groomer—although in human terms that would be, what?, a valet?

“Helmie doesn’t have what he wants,” she said, “and he’ll never have it again.”

Rupert. Jeez. Travis hadn’t thought of that. Helmie was a mammal. Mammals loved. And Helmie and Rupert had been inseparable.

“Yeah,” Travis said tersely, feeling more compassion for the damn cat than he wanted to. “There’s that.”

Kelsie shifted the weight in her arms. “We’ve got to get to the house. Helmie needs care.”

And she probably did too. The wind had a real bite to it, and she was soaked.

“One last thing,” Travis said. “I will need a photo of you both, here, if we are going to build the animal cruelty case.”

“I look like a wreck,” she said, sounding clichéd female for the first time since he met her.

He almost gave her the boyfriend answer. Yes, he managed to keep back. A cute wreck.

“Hand me the blanket for just a minute,” he said, “and stand with your back to the overgrowth. If you could turn the carrier so that we could see Helmie, or just a hint of Helmie, that would be great.”

She glared at him. “This better work.”

She clearly wanted to be on the road. He didn’t blame her.

“I’m going the extra distance,” he said, “because I’m hoping we get the S.O.B. on more than animal cruelty. There’s a wide variety of charges the court could consider, especially given the various clauses in the will about Helmie. I don’t want to throw the book at the S.O.B. I want to throw an entire library at him.”

For the first time since Travis met her, Kelsie smiled. The smile lit up her face like a ray of sunshine after a week of clouds.

“I can agree to that,” she said, handed him the blanket, and moved in front of the brambles. “I’d bet if he got a vote, Helmie would agree with that too.”

 

Kelsie drove to Helmie’s house with Helmie’s cat carrier on her lap. She wrapped it in the blanket so that it was all protected against the steering wheel and air bags and anything else that could go wrong.

Still, she drove like a little old lady, and felt vaguely guilty for jeopardizing Helmie’s life like that.

She should have put him in the back seat, or at least on the floor, or in the hard shell carrier she had in the trunk. Rupert would have wanted that. Hell, everyone else would have wanted it too. Ideally, she would have wanted it, but she couldn’t quite do it.

Helmie had cried when she tried to put him down. It wasn’t one of those complaint meows that most cats gave when they were getting into a car. It was a terrified please don’t leave me meow that touched Kelsie’s very soul.

She recognized the meow, having heard it before. Whenever she brought a lost cat back to their person, she heard that meow—or at least a version of it. At least, whenever she had used the same spell she had used with Helmie, tapping into that golden cord of connection.

The difference was she could easily set the other cats on the floor, knowing they were soon going to be back in the bosoms of their family (or whatever the cliché was). Helmie wasn’t. Helmie was going to spend the rest of his little life pampered and alone.

The other cats calmed down when they saw their people. Helmie would never see Rupert again.

Her heart ached. She vacillated between sadness for Helmie and complete fury at the Grade A Number One Asshole for what he had done to Helmie. Buried in there was a personal sadness as well—sadness that she would never see Rupert and Helmie cruising through town together again, bringing joy wherever they went.

Because the joy wasn’t just from Helmie. Everyone loved seeing the cat, but it was particularly nice to see the pure enjoyment that Rupert got out of Helmie and the way everyone treated him. It was as if Helmie was King of Rickets Rock and Rupert was his most faithful advisor, the kind of man who took just enough credit for the king’s achievements to feel the reflected glory, but not enough to take any of that glory on himself.

Kelsie’s eyes filled and then she shivered. She was getting a chill. She had the heat turned up, but that wasn’t enough. She wanted a warm shower and dry clothes, and a way to get rid of that feeling of impending doom, as if nothing could go entirely right.

She sighed, and turned onto a road that hugged the coastline, a road leading to Rupert’s stunning house. The big truck remained behind her, far enough away to let her stop, but close enough to keep reminding her that Travis had a stake in all of this as well.

She understood why Don had hired him, even if she didn’t like it. Travis was clearly the kind of man who could go in front of a jury and testify to facts and figures, clues and leads—not golden chains of magic that connected cat to beloved person, but little paw prints leading down a muddy path to a thin stream.

The photographs were a good idea. Throwing an entire library of charges at the Grade A Number One Asshole was an even better idea.

The fact that Travis had his priorities straight—take care of the cat first—helped. But she wouldn’t be a single heterosexual female if she didn’t notice Travis himself. Tall, broad-shouldered, smoldering dark eyes, an intelligent intensity that appealed more than she wanted it too.

The last thing she needed was to get involved with another man from Portland. Men from Portland were the problematic theme of the day. The Grade A Number One Asshole was one; Kelsie had broken up with two others over the past year, both of whom had been hard to shake. (You’re just so unique, Kels, one of them said, making her cringe at “so unique” and his too-intense tone.) She finally had to use a tiny push spell to make them leave her alone—and she almost never used magic to aide herself.

So even letting Travis know she thought he was handsome was a risk she didn’t want to take. Maybe she could get him to leave after he photographed Helmie. After all, Helmie had been rescued and all was as right with the world as it could be, with Rupert gone.

“We’re almost home, Helms,” she said, noting that the nickname was not one she would have ever used. There still had to be a bit of a Rupert tinge to her conversation with Helmie.

The cat burrowed into her stomach—at least, that was what it felt like through all those layers of fabric.

Poor Helmie. He still had an ordeal ahead of him—as well as lots of lonely nights.

 

At the rate they were driving, it would take them 40 minutes to reach the Malkivekio house. Travis probably should have appreciated the caution Kelsie was using, but he was getting impatient. He hated the way people drove on the Oregon Coast, as if they had more time than they knew what to do with.

The coast road that took them to the Malkivekio house comprised the bulk of the drive. The road veered off into granite cliffs on one side, and stunning views of the ocean on the other. The road was barely wide enough for his 4 x 4, but that didn’t matter. There was rarely enough traffic here to worry about.

Probably because the Malkivekio house was the only house after the third mile. Rupert had bought acres and acres of beachfront property, and proceeded to tear down all of the houses to give himself some much desired privacy.

Travis was unimpressed with the views—or rather, he was impressed, but they just didn’t hold his attention. Kelsie did. She was pretty and determined, despite that momentary talk of “Rupert energy.” Travis chalked that up to coastal woo-woo, which he had run into before. A lot of ex-hippies and children of ex-hippies and grandchildren of ex-hippies lived here.

That left quite a legacy of believers in everything from astrology to personal energy and beyond.

But Don was a practical guy, and Travis had no idea why a practical guy would hire a woo-woo woman to find a cat.

So, finally, when Travis couldn’t take the drive any more, he had the truck call Don, and put everything on speaker. Hands-free was legal in Oregon, but Travis still felt vaguely guilty for calling people while driving.

“All right,” he said once he got through to Don. “Tell me why you hired this Kelsie woman. I ended up at the same spot. I would have brought Helmie in.”

“Maybe,” Don said, and didn’t say anything else.

“C’mon, Don,” Travis said. “I’m in the car on the way to the house. I need to know. What’s so special about her?”

“Don’t ask me,” Don said. Travis had never quite heard him sound like that before. Gone was the confident lawyer, replaced by a man with a secret.

“What?” Travis asked. “Is she Helmie’s fairy godmother or what?”

“Something like that,” Don said.

“That’s not an answer,” Travis said.

“It’s what you’re going to get. Prep me for court with this thing, and don’t ask any more questions.” Then Don hung up.

So this was something to do with credibility in court. Was there a reason that Kelsie couldn’t sit in front of a judge in Seavy County?

Travis toyed with calling Don back. But the road had started into the switchbacks leading up to the Malkivekio house. By the time Travis would raise Don on the phone, he’d be in the driveway, and honestly, the last thing Travis wanted to do was slow down poor Helmie’s transition from lost kitty to valued and pampered king of the house.

Travis let out a breath. He was getting sentimental. He had no idea how that happened. He’d love the blame the pretty woman. But that damn cat had wrapped his little paws around Travis’s heart—and Travis hadn’t even seen Helmie up close yet.

Sentimental might be too mild a word. Soft. That was better. Soft. Appropriate for a pet detective who lived on the Oregon Coast.

Like Kelsie.

 

Helmie had his own grooming room in the house. It was a little kitty spa, with a square granite tub perfectly designed to hold only a few inches of water, a blow-dry station that apparently Helmie loved, a table where Helmie could sit for his pedicures, and an island in the center of the room where Helmie could get brushed. Or, in this case, examined.

The vet wanted to look at Helmie before the groomer washed Helmie clean. Then the vet wanted to look again.

Travis was documenting all of this with his camera. Even though he smiled at Kelsie when he first entered the room, most of his attention went to Helmie.

Everyone’s attention went to Helmie.

The cat looked sad and traumatized and strangely happy to be home. He clearly recognized the room, but he went to a pair of Rupert’s shoes (spa shoes), sniffed them, and then wailed plaintively. The vet let Helmie walk over there to see if the poor cat was limping, which he was.

Kelsie left as they picked him up and put him on the island—without a cushion, which Helmie did not like. He did pose for photographs, though, as if he knew that Travis’s pictures were going to help him.

Rafael stood at the doorway, arms crossed. He was whip-thin with corded muscles and a long face that seemed set in permanent sad lines. His dark black hair had tiny streaks of silver that looked entirely natural.

Kelsie liked him. She loved his concern for Helmie, and his willingness to bring her in on the case.

As she passed him, heading for the shower in the guest suite where he had set her up, he touched her arm.

“Thank you,” he said again, softly. That was probably the twentieth thank-you he had given her in the past half hour.

She had no worries about Rafael harming Helmie. She noticed, as she brought the cat into the house, a shoot of green forming between Helmie and Rafael—the beginning of their own gold cord.

“You’re welcome,” she said again. She slipped out of the door.

At that moment, Helmie started to scream as if they were beating him with pointed sticks.

She turned around and scrambled inside.

No one was touching Helmie. He had stopped screaming the moment he saw her.

Great. She was substituting for Rupert in Helmie’s little life—at least for the moment. She had to figure out how to reverse that spell.

“It’s okay, Helms,” she said in what she now thought of as her Rupert-voice. “I’m going to shower. I’ll be back.”

If a cat could look peeved, then Helmie was looking peeved. But he inclined his little head, as if saying I give you leave, human, to tend to yourself, and this time, when she walked out of the room, he didn’t make a sound.

She walked to the guest suite, feeling self-conscious about all the mud covering her. The suite was twice as large as Kelsie’s apartment—the apartment Don had sent his assistant Annabelle to after all. Kelsie hated having anyone see her apartment. It was small and uncomfortable and so damn empty.

She imagined Annabelle pitying her for the life she led.

And as if to confirm that pity, three grocery bags of clothes sat on the floor of the guest suite. Annabelle apparently hadn’t found Kelsie’s suitcase, which she had crammed in the back of the broom closet after her last trip to Portland.

Her clothes were probably wrinkled now. She sighed. But there was nothing she could do about it this muddy. Besides, she was so cold, she hurt.

She dropped her filthy clothes on the marble floor of the gigantic bathroom (which still wasn’t as big as Helmie’s grooming room) and climbed into the rain shower, which she had set on scald.

As she did, she realized that she normally didn’t care that much about how her clothes looked. It was Travis. She was subconsciously trying to impress Travis.

And she had to stop.

 

A little army of people were talking care of Helmie, and Travis was one of them. This was, perhaps, the most surreal day of his entire life. He photographed a cat getting a vet exam, a bath, another exam, and a blow-dry.

The blow-dry was the weirdest, because Helmie tilted his head up as the hot air blew on him, then turned his body in various directions, making sure that each inch of his fur had a chance to dry off.

He was definitely red-point Persian. The black and gray had left his fur to clog the special tub with mud and all kinds of other icky stuff that the groomer bitched about.

The vet found that Helmie had cuts which needed stitches, lacerated paws which required special booties (the groomer said Helmie wouldn’t mind), and was completely malnourished. If Kelsie hadn’t found Helmie, the vet said, the cat would have died within a few days.

The regimen the vet prescribed sounded like more work than Travis wanted to do. Rafael didn’t blink as he heard it, but he did ask that it all get written down, and the groomer volunteered to help with some parts of it.

All the while, Helmie watched the door through which Kelsie disappeared as if she was his lifeline and he needed her back.

“Glad Kelsie was on this,” the vet said to Rafael, as she packed up. “Smart move on your part.”

“It was Don’s idea,” Rafael said.

Travis frowned. The groomer was touching up Helmie’s hair, cooing over the visible wounds, telling the poor cat he would be all right.

“You got those pictures for sure, right?” the vet said. It took Travis a moment to realize the vet was talking to him.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve already sent the entire mess to Don.”

Travis loved the cloud. Usually he loved it as an investigator—there were few secrets in the cloud, which helped him catch criminals—but sometimes he succumbed to the convenience just like everyone else did.

“Well,” the vet said, “I’ll get right on my report then. Because I think some of the wounds Helmie sustained came directly from that horrid usurper, and not from the wild.”

Travis frowned at her. “You think that Edmund hurt Helmie before tossing him outside?”

“Yes,” the vet said, then made a moue of disgust. “People like him should be put away for life.”

“We’re going to see what we can do,” Travis said, patting the camera. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, he asked, “Kelsie, I take it she and Helmie have a close relationship?”

The vet closed up her bag, rested a hand on it, and kept her head down for a moment. He recognized the movement. It was one people made as they considered their next words carefully.

She raised her head. “Um, I don’t know what Kelsie’s relationship is with Helmie. The whole town loves him.”

Travis looked at Rafael, but he had gone to Helmie’s side. The groomer was showing him the best way to brush Helmie. Neither man participated in this conversation. In fact, they seemed to be actively pretending like they hadn’t heard a word of it.

“Yet you just said it was a smart move to have Kelsie on this,” Travis said. “Why is that?”

The vet gave him a brave little smile. “Kelsie has a great record for finding lost things.”

The vet didn’t say pets. She didn’t even say creatures. She said “things.”

“She’s a detective, then,” Travis said, feeling annoyed all over again.

“Well, not officially.” The vet picked up her bag. “She’s just good, and we rely on her. Although, frankly, I didn’t think she’d take this job.”

“Why not?” he asked.

The vet tilted her head. She had clearly given him that bit of information, rather like a bone, something to focus his attention elsewhere. He wasn’t sure if it was working or not.

“Because,” the vet said, “she just lost Oscar and Felix within a week of each other.”

“Oscar and Felix?” he asked.

“Her cats. They were rescues, and they were close.”

“She lost them?” he asked. Hadn’t the vet just said that Kelsie was good at finding things?

“Wrong choice of words,” the vet said. “They passed away. Old age. The one thing we can’t stop or cure.”

“Why wouldn’t she take this job because of that?” Travis asked.

The vet shrugged. “We all thought there was no chance of recovering Helmie.” She glanced at him. He looked at her as if he had understood. “But we had to look.”

“Yeah.” Travis felt a bit annoyed that they didn’t believe in Helmie. And there Travis was, being protective of Helmie again. Because, truth be told, Travis had thought finding the cat alive had been a long shot as well. “But you still didn’t answer my question.”

“None of us were sure how much more heartbreak Kelsie could take,” the vet said softly. “I’m glad she didn’t have to take any of it, this time.”

The words felt almost like a warning, as if the vet were being protective of Kelsie.

“I still don’t understand,” Travis said. “She didn’t even have to be brought in. They hired me for this. I was only about an hour behind her in finding Helmie.”

The vet gave him a withering look. “You think Helmie would have come to you?”

“I would have managed,” Travis said, although he wasn’t certain. He and Helmie hadn’t met before, and cats were notoriously skittish, and it might’ve been a struggle to bring him out of that underbrush. It might’ve been a struggle for Travis to go into that underbrush.

“They didn’t bring her in to find him,” the groomer said, as if he couldn’t take it any more. “They brought her in to bring him home.”

Rafael was watching Travis now. The groomer had one hand on Helmie, who was looking very patient. The vet had her bag clutched at her side.

“Because…?” Travis asked.

All three of them looked at each other. Then Rafael sighed.

“She’s special. That’s how they explained it to me,” he said. “She can do something that will tame the most savage critter, and somehow figure out how to communicate with everything.”

Travis frowned. “She’s…a cat whisperer?”

The vet shrugged. “I don’t ask a lot of questions. I just know that Kelsie gets the best results I’ve ever seen. And now, I need to get back to my practice.” She gave Rafael a hard look. “The stitches will dissolve, but I still want to see Helmie in a few days.”

“I’ll bring him,” Rafael said. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

The vet nodded. “Everyone loves Helmie. Me included.”

And then she left.

“I can help with the medicine if you need it,” the groomer said to Rafael. “You just let me know.”

“I will,” Rafael said.

“I’ll be back tomorrow to see how our guy is doing,” the groomer said. “I can let myself out.”

He gathered fewer things than the vet had, and then followed her out of the room.

Travis had to leave as well. He was strangely reluctant, though. He wanted to see Kelsie again.

“Special,” he said to Rafael. Rafael shrugged.

“She has some kind of gift,” he said, not sounding quite as casual as his movements made it seem.

Travis nodded. He looked at the cat. Helmie did look thinner than his photographs, and he seemed downtrodden, as if being home wasn’t quite enough.

“I don’t know anything about cats,” Rafael said after a moment. “I only watched Rupie deal with Helmie. I’m going to do my best, but, wow.”

Travis wanted to say that the way everyone treated Helmie wasn’t how cats were normally treated, but he didn’t.

“It sounds like Kelsie will be here a while to help you,” Travis said.

“And then what?” Rafael asked. “I wasn’t planning to stay here. I have a life in Minneapolis. Helmie doesn’t strike me as the kind of cat who’ll live alone real well, and I don’t think he’ll enjoy living somewhere else.”

Helmie hadn’t moved. He still sat upright, his paws in front of him, as if he were posing for another picture.

He was waiting for Kelsie. They were both waiting for Kelsie.

And what would Travis do when he saw her? He had nothing to say that he hadn’t already said. Besides, he had a report to write. Something short and to the point for court, just like the vet had to do.

“I’m sure it’ll work out.” Travis gave Rafael an insincere smile, then shoved the camera in its case.

Time to get out of here before Travis got roped into more cat duty. Before Helmie had a chance to put more paw prints on his heart.

 

Kelsie dressed up for the meeting at Don Ingraeo’s office. She wasn’t quite sure why. She told herself that anyone who was going to see a lawyer would wear a nice pair of slacks and a lively top, pull her hair back, and dust her face with just a trace of make-up, but she knew that was a lie. She’d had jury duty enough in Seavy County to know that people often showed up like they were dressed for a tractor pull.

She was dressed up because there was an ever-so-slight chance she would see Travis. She couldn’t stop thinking about him. One moment kept replaying over and over in her mind—the moment where they’d met.

He could have braced himself against his truck, preparing for a fight as she emerged from under that brush. He could have grabbed her hand and yanked her out, maybe injured her and Helmie in the process.

Instead, Travis had grabbed a blanket from the bed of his truck and quietly waited until she was comfortable enough with him to offer it to her. He had been caring, and she had been so stressed about Helmie that she hadn’t even realized it.

Thoughtful men, thoughtful good-looking men, had been rare in her life. The men she’d been attracted to were generally like the Grade A Number One Asshole—interesting at first, and then, slowly, they’d reveal just how venal they were.

She pulled Helmie from the Prius. He was in one of his everyday soft-sided carriers, comfortably watching the world go by. He hadn’t recovered all of his gregariousness—he now had a wariness of fat blond men with spikey hairdos until he realized they weren’t the Grade A Number One Asshole—but Helmie was coming around. He had put some weight back on, and he was no longer limping.

But he did seem sad, except when she was around. She had used her Sight, checking for the gold cord, and she saw one between her and Helmie. But it wasn’t that rich brownish gold that had composed the cord she had first seen when she was searching for Helmie. This one was almost green tinged with gold.

That worried her. It meant Helmie was forming a new connection with her, a major connection.

It also meant she was forming one in return.

Hello, heartbreak. That was all she needed—to lose another cat in this awful, terrible year.

She crossed the street. Don’s office was a sea-weathered building with a great view of the ocean and the rock that gave the town its name.

She opened the door and stepped inside. Annabelle grinned at her, then swept a hand toward the conference room.

“They’re waiting for His Highness,” Annabelle said, almost in a coo. Who would have thought that formidable Annabelle could coo? But she did, and peered at Helmie as she did so.

“Thanks,” Kelsie said, and headed to the best room in the building.

The conference room was on the ocean side, with triple-paned windows that needed almost daily cleaning because they got so salt-spattered. Still, Don said he wouldn’t trade the view for anything, and she didn’t blame him. Right now, the sky over the ocean was a golden pinkish blue, reflected on the surface of the somewhat calm water.

Don was standing near the head of the polished oak conference table, tapping folders on the surface as if the papers inside were being unruly. Rafael was standing at the windows, staring at the ever-changing ocean, his thumbs looped in his back pockets. And Travis was leaning against the far wall, watching everyone.

Including her.

Her heart beat faster at the sight of him. He was wearing form-fitting jeans, a dress shirt, and a leather jacket that could have doubled as a suit jacket. He looked like he was posing for some kind of Western commercial—all he needed was a cowboy hat pulled low, and a piece of straw between his teeth.

His eyes lit up when he saw her, but his expression didn’t change. Yet she was convinced that he was pleased to see her.

She smiled at him before she could stop herself. Then she set Helmie in the middle of the conference table. She opened the top of the carrier. As if he were a little jack-in-the-box, Helmie popped his head out and surveyed his surroundings. He wouldn’t leave the carrier unless she told him it was okay.

Travis bent down and picked up a cat bed, setting it on the tabletop.

Thoughtful.

Her breath caught. She liked this man a little too much.

“Oh, sorry. I meant to put that out already,” Don said, sounding distracted. “You guys are all early.”

Kelsie didn’t apologize; she had barely made it on time. She’d changed her shirt five times, which had nearly made her late.

She tapped the table, then tilted the top of the carrier down. Helmie walked from the carrier to the cat bed, proving yet again that he was the most trained (and well behaved) cat she had ever seen.

Travis shook his head as he watched it.

“That cat is something,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

That cat was also sad. He slept with her in the guest room, although before he went to bed he would walk around Rupert’s bedroom, as if checking to see if Rupert had returned during the night.

Kelsie had always known that cats (and dogs and other mammals) mourned; she had just never seen it quite that clearly before.

 “Well, Helmie is what we’re here to discuss,” Don said, after stacking the last folder on top of the small pile he had made.

Kelsie didn’t like the sound of that. Neither, apparently, did Travis, because he stood up just a little straighter.

There were no good options for Helmie. Either he lived alone in his big house with his attendants, or he went to Minneapolis with Rafael who just didn’t seem to have that cat-affinity that some people had.

Helmie sat up, paws delicately placed in front of him, as if he knew this conversation was very important. Maybe he did.

“Before we go any further,” Don said, “I have to ask Kelsie one question.”

She put her hand on Helmie’s back. He looked up at her fondly, then looked at Don again. She braced herself. She’d been going over and over the options in her mind all night. She would be willing to drive Helmie to Minneapolis if need be. Because cats really didn’t belong on airplanes, particularly Persians with their squished-in noses and inability to breathe as well as some other cat breeds.

Don glanced at Rafael, who nodded. Travis, standing near him, frowned.

“Kelsie,” Don said, “would you be willing to be Helmie’s legal guardian?”

Sunlight hit the ocean, and filled the room with more light than Kelsie could deal with. She turned away, stunned, eyes watering. She hadn’t expected that question.

“What does that mean, exactly?” she asked.

“You would live with Helmie. You would take care of him and his needs every day. You would get an allowance to handle his expenditures, but the key is that you’d have to live in his house, and take him on his daily jaunts, and make sure his friends get to visit him.”

“Pampered cat,” Travis said fondly, and chucked Helmie under the chin.

Helmie purred, then leaned into Travis’s hand.

“Live in the house,” Kelsie said. A gorgeous house in her hometown, overlooking the ocean.

“You could still do your job, of course,” Don said, “but we would have to stipulate that any other lost animal that you need to care for would go to the guest house. Helmie would remain king of his little castle.”

“It’s not so little, is it?” Travis said softly to Helmie, who was enjoying an ear rub. Travis’s fingers were long, and Helmie’s purr grew louder.

“I talked to the vet,” Rafael said. “We’re guessing, given Helmie’s age, and general good health, that the commitment would be a minimum of six years, maybe longer.”

Kelsie swallowed. Guardian. To Helmie. His round blue eyes met hers. Above them, Travis’s brown eyes were peering at her too.

She was at a loss for words. This was so unexpected. Her brain felt like it had frozen shut. She knew she needed to ask some questions, but she wasn’t sure what they were.

“If she says no,” Travis said, “what’s your back-up plan?”

Rafael gave Don a nervous glance. Don grinned. “You, I’m afraid.”

“Me?” Travis said.

“The cat likes you, and you like him. You’ve been wanting to move over here anyway.”

Now, Travis looked like his brain had frozen closed. “I’m—why me? Aren’t there other locals who could do this?”

“Not really.” Rafael spoke softly. “I talked to Helmie’s vet, his groomer, and a lot of Rupie’s friends. Most people either don’t have the ability to move in with Helmie or they have other pets or they don’t really like animals that much. I had to rule out all those people who only saw the money.”

“So, we’re second-best?” Kelsie asked. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt vaguely offended at that idea.

“No,” Rafael said. “You’re my first choice.”

I’m second best,” Travis said, and then grinned. Apparently he liked that. “Or tenth best or fifteenth best.”

He didn’t seem offended at all. He seemed amused by this.

Rafael wasn’t watching Travis. Rafael was looking at Kelsie.

“The goal is to keep Helmie in his house, living his life.” Rafael opened his hands just a little, as if he didn’t know what to do with them. “You live here, and you clearly like it here. You have a job that can move to the house. You have an affinity for animals, and Helmie clearly loves you.”

At the moment, Helmie was loving Travis’s fingers. Kelsie would have loved them too. But that was going to go away in a few minutes. He was going to think she was crazy once she confessed to the magic. Most people did.

“I’m not sure Helmie does love me,” she said.

“Come on,” Rafael said. “He sticks by you as if you’re Rupie.”

“Yeah,” she said, feeling her heart sink. “Yeah, there’s a reason for that.”

She didn’t want to explain it. Not because of Rafael. But because of Travis. She liked him. She didn’t want him to know about the magic. Everyone who learned about it either wanted to use it or thought she was some kind of crazy woman.

Don had leaned back in his chair, arms resting on the files. She’d had her discussion about her magic with him years ago. It had taken three cases before he understood what she could do. He now believed in her abilities, but he knew better than to use her as a primary on anything that would go to court.

She had warned him the first time he hired her that she would always tell the truth about what she could do, and telling the truth on the stand would guarantee that any case that went to court lost.

That was why Travis had been on Helmie’s case. Travis, who couldn’t testify about Kelsie’s magic, because he didn’t know about it.

Kelsie looked at Don. Was it too late to ask Travis to leave?

Don raised his eyebrows slightly, the movement clearly saying, Sorry. We’re stuck here.

He knew it, she knew it, and Travis—well, Travis was watching them both as if they had just confessed to murder.

His hand remained on Helmie, though, and Helmie continued to purr.

“I, um,” Kelsie started, then looked at Rafael. “I use a little bit of magic. I tapped into the bond between Rupert and Helmie to find Helmie, and some of that rubbed off on me.”

Rafael didn’t seem surprised. Don had talked to him about her before bringing her in. Kelsie hadn’t expected Don to tell Rafael about the magic, though, just about her ability to get results.

Travis’s head was down. He kept petting Helmie, but she couldn’t see Travis’s face.

He probably thought she was some kind of fool. Her ex-boyfriends all had, once they learned about the magic.

“I suspect Helmie will be less fond of me as time goes on,” she said.

“He hasn’t so far,” Rafael said. “You underestimate Helmie. He knows Rupie is gone. He also knows you’re not Rupie. Besides, you care for Helmie. I’ve watched you. You think he’s something special.”

“He is special,” she said.

“He sure gets treated like someone special,” Travis muttered.

She felt a little twinge of anger. Or maybe she simply wanted to challenge Travis before he looked at her like she was crazy.

“I don’t think Helmie’s special because he’s pampered,” she said. “I think Helmie is a great cat. I think all great cats should be treated like Helmie. Hell, I think people should be lucky enough to be treated like Helmie, especially good nice kind people. I think Helmie is lucky, yes, but I’d think he was special if I found him and didn’t know who his person was and took him home and—”

“And that’s why I want you to take care of him,” Rafael said quietly. “Helmie would be lucky to have you.”

Her eyes filled again. She’d been struggling for so long. And her cats were gone. Her tiny apartment smelled of mold and damp. This was a dream, and they were offering it to her—

“I’m not sure,” she said. She wanted to take this for the right reason. “What if he decides he wants nothing to do with me?”

“Helmie?” Rafael said. “He won’t.”

“Let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter what Helmie ‘decides.’” Don was using his ever-practical lawyer voice. “You’re Helmie’s best choice. You live here. You chose to live in Rickets Rock before Helmie. You’d just live in a really nice place now.”

Annabelle had probably told Don about Kelsie’s apartment. She sighed.

Travis raised his head. He was frowning at her.

“You’re Helmie’s best choice not because of your living situation,” Travis said softly, “but because you’re his only chance at being loved for the rest of his life.”

Her breath caught. Her gaze met Travis’s. She could barely see him through the tears. She didn’t dare blink.

“No offense, Rafael.” Travis turned toward him ever so slightly. “But you might pamper Helmie in Minneapolis according to all the rules Rupert set down, but you’re not going to pamper that cat, not really. You’re not going to pay attention to his every mood, cater to him as if he’s human.”

“He’s not human,” Rafael said, sounding confused.

Travis’s gaze met Kelsie’s. He tilted his head just a little, as if to say, See?

“Rafael will do his best by Helmie,” Travis said to Kelsie. “But his best won’t touch how you’d treat Helmie on your worst day. Big house or not. Millions or not. Magic. Or not.”

She couldn’t tell, from that pause between “magic” and “or not,” what he meant, exactly about her abilities.

But his point was a good one.

She finally blinked, and a tear ran down her cheek.

“Okay,” she said. “I don’t want money, though.”

“You’re going to get a salary,” Rafael said.

“Nope,” she said. “Pay for Helmie’s expenses. Pay my housing. Pay for food—”

“No,” Travis said at the same time as Don. Then Don grinned at him.

“You need to get a salary,” Don said, “because you’ll have to pay taxes on the housing and food and all of that. You’ll need more money than you get from your work. And that’s okay. We’ll set a fair price.”

“I don’t want to be paid for loving someone,” Kelsie said.

“You’re not being paid to love Helmie,” Travis said quietly. “You’re being paid so that you’re free to live with him.”

“Which is best for both of you,” Don said in his we’re done here voice. He picked up the files and smiled at Kelsie. “Rafael and I will figure out the financial and estate details. I’ll talk to you about them afterwards.”

She wiped a hand over her damp cheek, then nodded. She bent the cat carrier lid down, like she had seen Rupert do a hundred times.

Helmie sighed and didn’t move.

“He’s not going to leave while you’re petting him,” she said to Travis.

Travis grinned. He removed his hand from Helmie’s back and tapped the carrier. Helmie walked to the carrier and climbed in. He looked bright-eyed for the first time in a while.

Travis picked up the carrier, and took Helmie out of the room. Kelsie paused, then said to Rafael, “Thank you for believing in me.”

He smiled. “You’re welcome.”

She nodded, and heading into the reception area. Annabelle was nowhere to be seen.

“Thanks for carrying Helmie,” Kelsie said to Travis. “I got it from here.”

“Nope,” Travis said. “Helmie and I are going to the diner.”

“The diner?” Kelsie said.

“I’m buying you both lunch.” Travis’s eyes twinkled.

“Thank you, but I’m not sure celebrating is the proper way to—”

“I didn’t say anything about celebrating,” Travis said. “I want to talk about magic.”

“Magic?” she repeated as her heart sank. Here it was. “I didn’t think people like you believed in magic.”

“People like me,” he said.

Already, she had put her foot into it. “I mean, most people. People who are not—me—I guess.”

His eyes were still twinkling. “I believe in magic,” he said quietly.

“You do?” she asked. He sounded sincere. He had to be sincere, right?

“Yeah,” he said, “although I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I believe in your magic. At least not in this case.”

Her emotions were going all over the map. She wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or offended. Or both. She shook her head, not sure if she should ask him what he meant or why he didn’t believe or if she should even have this conversation at all.

He leaned toward her, the smile in his eyes finally reaching his lips. “Have you met Helmie?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“Don’t you think it a little odd that a cat gets everything he wants? The house, the food, the people?”

“But he doesn’t have everything he wants,” Kelsie said. “Rupert—”

“There’s a limit to everything in the world,” Travis said. “I suspect there’s a limit to magic, too. I don’t know of anything that conquers death.”

He was right about that. Despite what fiction writers believed, magic couldn’t overcome death.

“But,” she said, “if Helmie had magic, then Edmund wouldn’t have hurt him.”

“Edmund took him by surprise,” Travis said.

That was true too. She couldn’t use her magic when she was taken by surprise. No one could.

“So Helmie made me find him?” Kelsie didn’t believe that. Entirely. But she also hadn’t believed the gold cord linking a cat and his person could last past death, either. Especially not days past death.

“I think Helmie’s magic helped yours,” Travis said. He was completely serious.

“But you were there. You would have found him.” Kelsie frowned. “Are you saying you have magic?”

“No,” Travis said. “I don’t have magic.”

“But you’re saying that Helmie got you there?”

“I’m saying Helmie got you there. I don’t think I would have found him, Kelsie,” Travis said. “I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t believe in divine intervention, so it had to be something else.”

“Helmie magic?” she asked.

“And yours. Everyone says you’re special. You are.”

She blinked, startled. He was close. Very close.

And she liked that.

She stood on her toes. Then he bent toward her. His lips brushed hers, then he paused, clearly asking permission.

She slipped her arms around his waist, and pulled him closer, stepping into the kiss.

And as she did, she heard something.

A purr.

Helmie approved.

And, as the kiss deepened, so did she.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Heart's Kiss Magazine

Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.