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Leann Sweeney

The Cat, the Lady and the Liar

This book is for three dear friends whom I have come to love: Kay, Lorraine and Jennifer. Thanks for everything.

Acknowledgments

There are so many people who help bring a book to life. My family: Mike, Jillian, Jeffrey, Shawn, Allison and Maddison make my world so much better. Thank you. The Tuesday night critique group, which tells me where I’ve gone wrong and what I’ve done right, has done much to shape this story. Kay, Amy, Laura, Dean, Bob, Millie, Susie, Charlie and Isabella hold a special place in my heart. The “fur” friends who inspire me—Indigo, Agatha Christie, Archie Goodwin, Rosie, Curry and Enzo have all helped the animal characters in my books act like they should. The cozy writers who are always beside me in spirit—I am so grateful for your support. My agent, Carol, stands by me and encourages me. Thanks for that! Last of all, I thank the best editor any writer could hope for. Claire, you are forever the best of the best.

In ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.

—UNKNOWN

One

I try not to lie. Honest. But as I drove my minivan down the curving treelined road on the Longworth Estate, I convinced myself no other tactic would work. Not with the rules that Shawn Cuddahee of the Mercy Animal Sanctuary had told me I must obey during my visit to the owner of this grand mansion.

The Greek Revival house loomed in the distance, a stunning home in Woodcrest, South Carolina, and only fifteen miles from my place in Mercy. From what little research I’d done before embarking on this mission, I learned that the property encompassed twelve acres and that the historic house—brilliant white with tall green shutters— was more than a century old and four stories high. Having never been in an honest-to-goodness antebellum mansion as anything but a tourist, I felt a flutter of excitement. If I could get over my guilt about the lies I was about to tell, I might enjoy my assignment.

Shawn rescued small animals, those that were brought to him, dumped on him or found. The cat in question, a lovely long-haired black cat named Isis (according to her tags) had been saved from near-certain death by Shawn himself. He’d found her wandering near a busy highway. The fact that he’d rescued Isis from such a dangerous situation had led me here today. Shawn had tried to meet the registered owner, a woman named Ritaestelle Longworth, but his phone calls had not been returned. He’d even made a trip to Woodcrest last week, but the person who answered the door told him that Ms. Longworth was not seeing visitors. She was “indisposed.”

In the past, Shawn had returned “lost” pets to their owners, only to discover them “found” again. And again. And again. He considered such behavior abuse. He’d told me he didn’t care if this “Longworth woman” had a bazillion dollars; her cat needed to be cared for properly and not put in danger by indifference or neglect.

Yes, Shawn does have anger management issues—the local animal control officer has a restraining order against him—and when his calls to Ritaestelle Longworth were not returned, Shawn became so upset that I swear all the hair under his collar was singed. That was when I stepped in and said that by hook or by crook Miss Longworth and I would meet, and I would try to find out why Isis had ended up in a shelter.

I do help out at the sanctuary whenever I can, and this assignment seemed right up my alley—a cat in trouble. Right up my alley except for the lying part. But I do take cats in trouble seriously, and I always do what I can to help them.

Since Shawn had already identified himself as a shelter owner in the messages he’d left, we decided I couldn’t associate myself with him—at least at first. I would introduce myself as a journalist. I’d actually gotten a few tips for this role from my stepdaughter, Kara, who really is a journalist.

My goal today was to assess the living situation. Did this woman miss her cat? Since Isis had no front claws, why was she outdoors? Was this a simple mistake, or had she been abandoned? If I learned that Isis had been neglected in any way, then that would be the end of any contact with this woman. Shawn would find Isis a new home. He didn’t consider it catnapping when he had difficulty contacting the owner to return a newly homeless pet.

I reached a circular drive with a lovely pond in the center and parked in front of the house. The late-afternoon summer sun shimmered on the water, and the carefully tended garden surrounding the pond took my breath away. The flowers were a wonderful mix of reds, purples and yellows. Though I knew the names of many of the local flowers, these blooms were like nothing I’d seen before.

I slid from behind the wheel, and the next thing that caught my eye was a restored and gleaming black carriage positioned near the side of the house. What a stage setter, I thought. Then I made my way between the majestic columns and up the broad steps toward double, lacquered black doors. I’d learned that this house had been built in 1844 and the Longworths sat atop the social crowd in Woodcrest, a class system typical in small Southern towns. And yet Ritaestelle, the seventy-year-old head of household, couldn’t seem to take care of a cat.

That thought saddened me, and as I rang the doorbell, I used my other hand to take my phone from the pocket of my linen skirt. I pulled up the cat-cam feed and tapped a screen icon for my living room video. I saw my three cats, Syrah, Merlot and Chablis, fast asleep—two on the sofa and one on the overstuffed armchair. I realized that my heart rate had picked up—I was worried about telling tall tales—but the sight of these cats, my three best friends, calmed me instantly. I replaced my phone and waited for someone to answer the bell I’d heard chime inside.

When the door opened, a thin black man in what I could only call butler attire answered the door. I felt like I’d been transported back 150 years.

He said, “How may I help you, ma’am?”

His face was unreadable—no smile, no frown. I imagined he’d spoken those words a thousand times before. He had close-cropped silver hair, but I couldn’t tell if he was sixty, seventy, perhaps even eighty? Definitely older than my forty-three years.

Sound confident, I told myself before I spoke. “My name is Jillian Hart. I’d like to speak with Miss Longworth, please.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Miss Longworth is indisposed. If you’d like to leave your phone number, her assistant will call you.”

Since Shawn’s calls had never been returned, the same thing would probably happen to me. But I smiled and said, “That doesn’t exactly work for me. I’m a journalist, and I—”

“You’re a reporter?” he said. “There’s nothing much to report on here.”

“I’m doing a piece for my magazine on the grand homes of the South. I understand this house is seeking historical status. Is that true?” I knew this was true since I’d done my research, so I hoped it was my ticket inside.

He hesitated, and I quickly dug into my shoulder bag and pulled out my slim silver digital camera.

I smiled. “I’ve already gotten some lovely shots of this wonderful estate. May I take your picture?”

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