KEEP ON TAKING A PEEK AT CHRISTMAS PETS AND KISSES!
Unexpected Gift – Chantel Rhondeau
Aspiring decorator Cali Johnson moves to New York City—lonely, afraid, and far from home during the holidays. When she finds a lost cat in her apartment building, she strikes up an odd friendship with his reclusive owner, Marcus Ritz. If only she knew what he was hiding.
Cali Johnson covered her nose, trying to block the putrid smell of rotting garbage and body odor as she navigated the dirty linoleum flooring in the hallway of her apartment building. Four more doors and she’d reach her tiny place. Knowing she had a safe haven of cleanliness and cheer at the end of the hall was the only thing that kept her walking through it.
She couldn’t believe the way her neighbors treated their home. In her small hometown of Idaho City, no one would ever think about leaving rotting trash in another person’s way. Her new fifth story apartment off Bedford Park in the Bronx was an entirely different matter. Cali usually tried to see the good in everyone, but her new neighbors left a lot to be desired. She wondered how many of them were drug dealers or killers.
“But I’m living my dream,” she muttered under her breath, gagging when she walked by a bag at the apartment next to hers with something stinky inside.
The doorway across from her apartment opened and a tall, muscular man stepped out. His well-built arms made Cali gulp with fear and the scowl on his face didn’t invite friendly conversation.
She gripped the pepper spray canister attached to her key ring as she walked toward him, knowing she had to be ready if he came after her. She’d already learned that lesson on the subway last week. A thug overtook her while she rested and stole her purse, which would cause her aggravation for some time to come. People were different in New York than they were back home.
Just as the man was about to pass, a low hissing sound traveled through the hallway, making Cali jump and fumble her key chain protection to the floor.
“Again?” the man roared and pounded his fist against the wall with a short jab. “I’m sick of this crap!”
Cali pressed herself flat against the opposite hallway wall, not daring to bend over for her keys and be more vulnerable to the stranger. She turned her head briefly toward the hissing, noting a large ginger and white cat emerging from a garbage bag. The cat was a minor threat, however, and Cali fixed her attention on her neighbor.
“Don’t worry, miss,” the man said. “He probably won’t hurt you. It’s me he wants a piece of. I hate that cat.”
Swallowing quickly, Cali struggled to moisten her tight throat so she could speak. It seemed the man had misunderstood her fear. He must not be planning to attack if he assumed her fear wasn’t directed toward his scowling face and bulging biceps. “I thought cats weren’t allowed in this building,” she managed to say. “You’ve seen him before?”
The man rolled his eyes, clearly frustrated. “Yeah. That’s Jasper. He’s a service animal for the weirdo who lives in the apartment above yours.” He stuck his hand out. “I’m Clint, by the way. Been meaning to introduce myself since you moved in last week, but I work nights so it’s tough to sync up schedules with daytime folks.”
As he gave her a reassuring grin, Cali’s fear began to melt away. This was the first person in the building to offer her their name or a friendly word. Cali didn’t know anyone in this city and was awfully lonesome. Maybe Clint wasn’t so bad. She shook his hand. “I’m Cali. Just moved here to work as an assistant for an interior decorator down in Manhattan.”
Jasper stopped hissing and walked toward Cali and Clint. Even though the cat’s eyes stayed trained on Clint, he came up to Cali and rubbed against her leg in a friendly enough fashion.
“Of course he would like you,” Clint grumped. “Damn thing bit me last time he got out and I tried to take him home. No one can control him, but the woman who lived in your apartment before you managed to handle him.” He glared down at the cat. “You’re pure evil, Jasper.”
“Do you have a number for his owner?” Cali asked. “We really should get him home.” She wrinkled her nose, thinking about what Jasper might be rubbing against her work slacks. “He’s going to need a bath after digging through that garbage bag.”
“If our neighbors gave a sh—” He paused. “Sorry, Cali, I meant a crap. If they gave a crap about where we lived, Jasper wouldn’t have rotting garbage to dig through.”
She nodded her agreement. “It’s definitely a lot different than where I come from. Unfortunately, The Bronx is the only place in New York City I can afford. At least the subway ride down to my job in Manhattan isn’t too bad.” If she didn’t include getting robbed last week, of course.
“Yeah, it’s cheap but we’re basically living in the slums. Our slumlord doesn’t give a crap about this place. I’ve never seen the owner show his face around here, of course. All he cares about is our money. I used to try and clean up, but it’s pointless.”
She couldn’t worry about that. The hallway wasn’t her problem. Then again, she had a furry, orange problem still rubbing her leg. “So, about the cat’s owner…?”
“I don’t know his number, but he lives upstairs right above you. Apartment seven.” Clint narrowed his eyes. “Be careful around him. I wasn’t kidding when I called him a weirdo.”
Gulping, Cali twisted her hands together. “What do you mean? Is he dangerous?” Maybe she’d just mind her own business and let Jasper roam the halls until his owner came to find him.
“Not dangerous,” Clint reassured her. “But definitely not normal. Don’t expect to see him. He never comes out of his apartment.”
“Then how can I give him the cat?”
Clint’s black bushy eyebrows scrunched down and then he shrugged. “There used to be a cat carrier up there to put him in. This little jerk gets out at least a few times a month. I wish he’d get some bad garbage and we could get rid of him for good.”
Cali widened her eyes in shock. Maybe Clint wasn’t the good guy she thought. Who could wish death on a poor cat?
She glanced down, finding that Jasper had sat next to her foot with his tail curled around the back of her high-heeled shoe. He purred loudly, licking whatever he’d gotten into off his paw.
“I’ll take him home,” Cali decided. His owner had to be a good person if he liked animals. Weird was a relatively broad term in this strange town as far as Cali was concerned. The owner couldn’t be any worse than some of the people she’d already come across. “It was nice to meet you, Clint. I’m glad to know someone in the building finally.” After all, it wouldn’t do her any good to be rude to him, even if he wasn’t as kind as she’d hoped.
Clint bent down, snagging her keys off the ground. Jasper hissed again and took a swipe at his face, but Clint was too fast. He handed them to her. “Probably won’t see much of me, due to the opposite schedules, but if you ever need anything, let me know. Pretty, young girl like you living all alone in a place like this?” He shook his head, expressing his disapproval. “Don’t let any of the weirdos bug you, okay? I’m gone from ten at night until ten in the morning, but I’m normally here sleeping other than that. Holler if you need me.”
As Cali accepted her keys, she realized her over-simple method of judging good and bad might not work for her in such a diverse area of people. Clint might not be a saint, but he wasn’t all bad. “That’s very nice of you. Thank you so much.”
Grinning, Clint took off down the hallway, continuing to wherever he’d planned to go before running into her.
Cali looked down at the cat and sighed. Speaking of weirdos in the building, she needed to go meet one now. “Come on, Jasper. Let’s take you home.”
She bent down, holding her hand out for the cat to sniff. After he’d thoroughly inspected her hand and began purring again, she lifted him from the floor and cradled him to her chest.
The rotting smell became stronger with the cat so close to her nose, and Cali hoped she didn’t have many problems returning him to his owner. She definitely needed a shower.
Stepping onto the top floor of the apartment building was like walking into a different world. The walls and linoleum flooring were spotless and not a single garbage bag graced the hallway. A crisp, clean scent of pine pervaded the area.
Cali scratched behind Jasper’s ears. “Why would you ever run away from this place to dig through trash?”
Jasper only purred louder in response. For Clint’s claims of the cat being such a vicious beast, Jasper hadn’t offered to bite her once on the way up the stairwell. He continued to be docile and sweet while they moved toward his home. If only he didn’t stink so badly, Cali might enjoy holding him.
She’d never been allowed to have a cat growing up, though she’d spent a lot of time trying to make friends with the feral cats that lived on nearby farms. She’d always wanted one, and Jasper was just the loving sort of furry friend she wished to have. She wondered what type of weirdo a person had to be in order to get a cat as a service animal. She’d love to have one if she qualified—after all, no one could really claim to be ‘normal.’
With growing trepidation, she reached apartment number seven. There wasn’t a cat carrier by the door, so Cali hoped Clint had exaggerated when he said the person living inside never came out.
“Here goes nothing, Jasper.” Cali raised her hand and knocked, holding her breath as she waited for a response.
After several moments, her heart continued to hammer away with nerves but no one came to the door. She knocked again, longer and harder.
“Go away!” yelled a deep voice from inside.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Cali yelled near the crack in the door. “I have Jasper. He was digging through garbage downstairs.”
“So put him inside the door and leave.”
The man definitely wasn’t friendly, but it seemed Cali could at least drop the cat off.
She tried the knob and it turned easily in her hand. A small part of her worried whether the man would be on the other side, ready to jump her and steal her new purse, but Clint said he wasn’t dangerous, just weird.
What awaited her on the other side of the door was a surprise. It was a small room with another closed door. Logically, she’d expected the apartment to be set up like hers. She never figured someone would have a pointless room inside their entryway.
More nervous than before, she walked into the room and tried the knob on the second door. That knob didn’t turn in her grasp. “Sir? The door is locked.”
“Set Jasper down out there and shut him in. I’ll get him after you leave.”
Something was certainly different about this situation, but at least Jasper could get home. Then again, Cali worried about the man living here. Clint said he never came out of his house. Why would that be? She knew how lonely she was living in this city and not knowing anyone. Purposely avoiding everyone was the strangest thing Cali had ever heard. This man definitely needed Jasper, just so he had some companionship and wasn’t completely alone. How sad that seemed.
“Look, sir, I’m new here,” she said through the door. “My name is Cali Johnson and I live in the apartment right below you.” She hesitated, wondering if that was too much information to give to a stranger. She wasn’t used to watching what she said or worrying about stranger danger. Strangers were an unusual occurrence in her small hometown except when tourists came through, and Cali never worried much about them.
Deciding she wanted to help this man even if he was a stranger, she forged on. “How about I give you my phone number in case Jasper gets out again? I’ll keep an eye on him for you. My neighbor said he gets out a few times a month, and he seems to have a problem with Jasper. I’d hate for you to lose your cat because no one brings him home.”
A loud snort came from the other side of the doorway. “Why would you do that? You don’t even know me.”
“Isn’t that what people do?” she asked, sincerely shocked. “It’s the holidays. Christmas is just around the corner. Isn’t this a time to be kind to other people?”
“Great,” the man said. “One of those bleeding heart types. You all want to help others until it’s an inconvenience to you and you stop helping.”
He certainly wasn’t grateful, but Cali reminded herself that she shouldn’t do nice things in the hopes of getting recognition for it. Being kind was reward enough.
Awkwardly, because of Jasper’s heavy weight in her arm, Cali sifted through her new purse and found a receipt from lunch. Not daring to shut herself inside the small room in case the door didn’t open back up and the ‘weirdo’ trapped her, she couldn’t put Jasper down. Carefully, she managed to write out a shaky message with her name and phone number. “I hope someone would help me if I were in the same situation, sir. I’m leaving my phone number. Call if you need anything at all. I just moved to the city and don’t know many people, so I’m home a lot besides going to work. Jasper seems like a good boy. I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“If I could keep the damn cat inside the house, it wouldn’t be a problem. He’s tricky. Always sneaking out when the groceries get delivered. He hides in that room until the door gets opened again.”
Even his groceries were delivered? The man must have quite a bit of money, despite living in a rough neighborhood and a rundown building. It explained why the hallway up here smelled good and was free from trash. He must pay to have it cleaned so his delivery people wouldn’t have issues making it to his door. Not that money mattered if he were trapped inside his home.
“I’ll help out,” Cali promised. “Jasper seems like a good boy. Oh, I didn’t catch your name.”
“I didn’t throw it,” the growly voice replied.
She sighed. “Well then, have a good evening, sir. I’ll leave Jasper and go now.”
Setting the slip of paper with her phone number on the ground, Cali stroked Jasper’s chin and kissed his head despite the smell. “Be good, boy.”
Carefully she backed from the room, set Jasper on the floor, and shut the door.
Bestselling author Chantel Rhondeau once thought a great mystery or fantasy book with strong romantic themes was the highest level of reading bliss. After reading her first romantic suspense novel, she never looked back. Chantel is author of six romantic suspense novels, a Christmas novella, and the new McCallister’s Paradise series with many more in the works. She lives in the western United States, and when she’s not writing she loves playing cards with her family, bowling on leagues, and snuggling with her lazy kitties.
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