MARTIN HANDED A MUG of fresh coffee to Jane and slid into the seat opposite her at the breakfast table, pausing a moment before he spoke.
“Jane, I need to ask you something.”
Caught off guard by the statement, she slopped a little of the steaming liquid.
“You always do that when I’m holding a drink,” she chided gently, dabbing the spill with a napkin. Her lighthearted tone belied the knot in her stomach, which was quite as tight as the one she had felt months earlier when, in the first days of their courtship, he had made an identical pronouncement of needing to ask something. The beverage in that instance was red wine, but the effect had been the same.
Martin pressed on, undaunted.
“Why do you keep putting me off? Every time I try to talk about our future, you deftly sidestep the conversation. What’s up? Have I done something wrong?”
“No,” she sighed, “it isn’t you.”
As if on cue, a big Rottweiler traipsed across the kitchen and laid his head on her lap, slumping against her leg as he sat. Instinctively, she reached out and stroked his ears.
“Where’s your mini-me?” she asked the dog. “We don’t often see the two of you apart when you’re in the same house.”
‘Mini-me’ was just one of the terms of endearment Jane used for Martin’s cat, which had coloring and markings identical to her Rottweiler’s, and even shared a name with him: Stormy, though now that they spent most of their time together, the cat was most often referred to as Little Stormy.
Martin volunteered an answer to the query about Little Stormy’s whereabouts.
“She’s sacked out in the other room, exhausted from chasing a fake mouse in circles for hours. Whenever I need affirmation that she is indeed a cat and not a miniature dog in disguise, I only have to turn on that toy. Something about it reaches deep into the feline imprinting and entertains her like nothing else—
“But I believe you were about to tell me why you keep changing the subject, before you, um, changed the subject?”
He looked at her pointedly, failing to conceal the hint of a smirk at his wry observation.
“Ah, yes, well…let me try to explain. I grew up in a small town, where my father was a prominent businessman. Then when I was fresh out of college, I married Peter, who was well on his way to becoming a respected school administrator. After he passed away, I was just getting back on my feet when you, my dear, came along and swept me off them.”
She gave him a smile before continuing.
“The point is, I’ve been overshadowed by great men all my life. And Martin van de Graaf casts a bigger shadow than anyone: renowned entrepreneur, visionary, philanthropist. You are known and liked by virtually everyone—including me,” she assured him, placing her hand on his. “Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I want to be alone, but I need to prove that I can make my own way.”
“Prove to whom?”
“To myself, primarily.”
“Well, what’s it going to take to do that? You already seem plenty successful to me. You had a rewarding teaching career, you’re a published writer, and don’t forget the small matter of that fellowship you won…”
“Which I would have had to forfeit if you hadn’t come up with an idea for the story I needed to write to meet the terms of the award,” she reminded him.
“Hogwash! I was making a joke; you’re the one who managed to turn it into an award-winning story. Really, I don’t know what more you could possibly expect from yourself. Are you sure there isn’t something else going on?”
“No, there’s nothing else going on! I don’t know why it’s so hard to believe I simply want to make it on my own. What exactly is wrong with that—”
AT THAT INSTANT, STORMY raised his head sharply and let out one deep “woof” as he gathered his 110-pound body and went scrambling toward the front hall. Shocked by the uncharacteristic behavior, Jane followed him in haste. The chime of the doorbell seconds later elicited a grumbling commentary from Martin, trailing into the foyer.
“Hell of a lot of good it does to live in a gated community when security lets anyone through.” He pointed at the door. “If they’re peddling anything except Thin Mints, I’m going to complain to the homeowners association…”
“Never mind that!” Jane interjected. “I’ve never seen Stormy react like this! Let me get hold of him before you open the door.”
Exasperated, Martin jabbed at the intercom.
“Yes?” he demanded.
“Hi Marty,” a syrupy female voice answered. “I need to talk to you.”
“It’s Heather,” he said. Striding to the door, he wore a look that showed shades of both annoyance and concern.
“What do you want?” he asked, stepping onto the porch. He blocked the gap but left the door cracked open, enabling Jane to hear the ensuing exchange between her beau and his former significant other.
“Manners, Marty. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“No. I repeat, what do you want?”
“Hmmph. My grandmother’s necklace. You know, the one with rubies and diamonds. I’ve been through everything multiple times and can’t find it anywhere. It has to be here. If I could just take a look…”
“Yes, it got left behind when you moved out, but it isn’t here now.”
“I knew it was valuable, so I put it in my safe deposit box. You’d be aware of that if you had bothered to read the message I sent you as soon as I discovered it.”
Jane had never heard Martin sound so ill-tempered, and he wasn’t alone: A constant low rumble issued from Stormy, who had been struggling to wrestle away from her the entire time.
“You’ve wasted a trip coming here. Meet me at the bank at ten o’clock tomorrow; you can pick up the necklace then.”
He slipped back inside, but Heather managed to gain entry before he could shut the door. Jane redoubled her efforts to hold Stormy as both the dog’s growl and attempt to break free intensified. The model looks and designer clothes of the intruder clearly held no sway with him, but the withering glance she cast toward the two of them was not lost on Jane.
“But Marty,” Heather cajoled, “I planned to get on the road early in the morning. It’s such a long drive. Can’t we go get the necklace now?”
“No, I have plans today. Tomorrow, ten a.m., at the bank. Now if you don’t mind…” He tried to guide her back outside.
She tugged her arm away, almost dropping the garish oversized tote she apparently carried as a purse.
“Well, I’m afraid I need to visit the powder room. Surely you won’t deny me that, will you?” She pushed by Martin, who held up his hands in surrender.
THE MOMENT SHE WAS out of sight, Stormy stopped snarling and began whimpering. Martin crouched down to his level.
“I know, big guy, I don’t like her either,” he said, rubbing the dog’s chest to calm him. “But she’ll be gone soon, and then we can have some ice cream as a reward for the remarkable restraint shown in not biting her. And trust me, buddy, I don’t mean you.”
“She’s…quite something, isn’t she?” Jane said.
“Yeah, that’s putting it kindly.”
Heather emerged moments later, clutching the tote tight to her body and talking non-stop as she rushed to depart.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at ten then. Thanks, Marty, I really do appreciate it. ’Bye now!”
Stormy was pulling more fervently than ever, and, her muscles strained from holding him, it was with great relief that Jane loosened her grip when the door closed.
“That was odd. She certainly seemed in a hurry to leave after want—”
“Oh no!” Martin cried, slapping his forehead. “I’ve changed banks…she’ll go to the wrong place.”
He opened the door to call after her, and chaos ensued. Stormy seized the opportunity, burst forth and went racing down the driveway in a matter of seconds.
“Bring the car—I’ll try to catch him on foot,” Martin panted as he tore off in pursuit.
By the time Jane caught up, he was at the guardhouse nearly a mile away, stooped and gasping for breath.
“Man, that dog can run,” he said, still breathing hard as he collapsed into the passenger seat. “He’s definitely chasing Heather. She’s in a red Lexus with California plates. She turned left at the entrance, which must mean she’s going to the Westin—it’s the only hotel in that direction where she would deign to stay. Let’s head there and hope we spot them.”
Jane nodded, blinking tears out of her eyes and sniffing back a sob.
“Hey, it’s going to be all right,” Martin said. “I’m sure we’ll find him.”
“No, it isn’t going to be all right! He’s a Rottweiler, Martin—a Rottweiler chasing a complete stranger. He’ll be branded a dangerous dog and…”
Neither of them finished the thought, but Martin kept a reassuring hand on her arm as they approached their destination.
“Look, there’s her car,” he said with relief, pointing to the hotel’s guest parking lot. Jane pulled into the registration drive and, ignoring the protestations of the bell captain that they weren’t allowed to park there, the pair ran into the lobby.
They found Heather backed up against a wall, Stormy growling at her from a few feet away. A growing crowd of convention-goers was giving the scene a wide berth.
Jane and Martin approached cautiously.
“There you are, Marty! I’m actually glad you followed me. Call off this mutt, won’t you?”
It surprised and irked Jane to hear that even in her current predicament, Heather’s voice still carried an arrogant, condescending tone.
“Come on, Stormy, it’s time to go home,” she said, trying to sound unconcerned as she reached the dog and clipped a leash to his collar. But Stormy refused to budge, remaining steadfast in spite of Jane’s best efforts to lead him away. With him on a leash, however, Heather’s taunts became more brash.
“I hope you’re not too attached to that beast, Marty, because I intend to make sure he’s not long for this world, if you catch my drift.” She began to back gingerly along the hallway toward the elevators, occasionally checking behind her while keeping her sights trained primarily on the Rottweiler.
Watching the woman inch toward escape, Jane noticed something no one else seemed to have seen.
“Martin,” she said quietly, “the bag is moving of its own accord.” As soon as she’d spoken, Stormy relaxed and allowed himself to be taken in tow a few steps back from the action.
Although momentarily dazed by the audacity implied, Martin began seething an instant later.
“Oh, you didn’t,” he snarled, lunging at Heather. He wrenched the tote from her shoulder and pulled it open. With a yowl, a small black cat with rust-colored markings leapt into his arms. Ears laid flat, the feline hissed and swiped a paw at the woman.
“My cat! He’s stealing my cat!” Heather screeched. “Somebody call the police!”
“Your cat?” he said, retreating to where Jane and the dog were standing. “I don’t think so. Her microchip says she’s my cat. Shall we go have it scanned right now? I’m sure the police you want summoned would be very interested in how my cat ended up in your bag.”
Heather continued to bluster, but fell silent when the group of onlookers began snickering at her expense. Martin drove home the advantage.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Now, we’re going to leave. I’ll have your necklace sent to you, and I never want to see or hear from you again.”
BREAKFAST THE NEXT DAY was a low-key affair. The animals roused just long enough to eat and soak up the morning dose of love and attention that was their due, then once more fell fast asleep curled up together. All was right again in their world, but their humans each seemed lost in thought, performing the rituals of the meal by rote. Martin finally broke the silence.
“Jane, I need to ask you something.”
She set down her cup purposefully, her response at the ready this time.
“For goodness sake, Martin, we can talk about our future if you want, but it really isn’t necessary. Yesterday’s events were a wake-up call for me. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Oh, I could make it on my own, but why would I want to? It’s so much better with a partner. Or rather, a team,” she added, casting an approving glance toward her beloved dog and his feline companion.
Satisfied, she lifted her teacup to take a sip.
“I’m delighted to hear it,” he said, smiling, “but my question is more short-term in nature. My calendar has suddenly become booked up today, so I was wondering…would you be able to take Little Stormy to the vet to be microchipped?”
Stunned at first, she started to laugh.
“Oh, Martin! Please don't ever stop surprising me, but could you learn not to do it when I'm drinking something?”
“Hmm, it might take a while for me to remember that,” he teased.
“Then you’re lucky to have our whole future ahead to practice, aren’t you?”
~ Still Not The End ~