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Watch Over: Book 1 of The DeLucas

By areeceauthor All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Romance

Blurb

Poignantly united by the wanderings of a stray cat, socially awkward graphic designer Melanie and wounded local cop Finn find themselves bound by more than butterflies in their stomachs. As sparks begin to fly and a romance ignites Finn must act as a protector as something lurks in the shadows close behind Melanie. Only through an exhaustive list of resources and their own ingenuity can the pair prevail against the unknown threat the follows them both.

Chapter 1

Melanie

It was the cat’s fault. She certainly never would have gotten involved if it wasn’t for the cat, much preferring to keep to herself. She wasn’t even a cat person, for heaven’s sake! She wasn’t much of a dog person, either, but now she had one of each, apparently. Fluff had belonged to Aunt Karen and Melanie had made a deathbed promise to take care of the small white mutt. Who else would understand Fluff needed her food heated for exactly eight seconds in the microwave and would only eat from the Blue Willow dishes? Of course Melanie had promised to continue to care for the elderly little mop. Sigh.

She’d seen the footprints first. She was rinsing her dishes in the sink and noticing how much dust had accumulated on the windowsill, when she frowned and leaned in for a closer look. There was definitely a trail of small animal footprints in the thick dust and what looked like a butt print where something had sat and stared out the kitchen window. What the...? Melanie glanced across the room at Fluff, curled up in his little bed, and shook her head. “Some guard dog you’ve turned out to be.”

The cat itself showed up the night after Aunt Karen’s funeral. It must have come in through the doggy door, but Melanie had been too busy crying to notice. It scared the crap out of her when it jumped on the table and began purring and rubbing it’s furry little face against hers.

She picked up the chair she’d knocked over and sat down to pet the orange cat. “Where in the world did you come from?” There was no collar. “You look like you’ve been through the ringer.” The cat had a torn ear and rough coat. She found a can of tuna in the pantry and added a small bowl of milk beside it as the cat made short work of the meal before leaping back on the kitchen table to lick its paws.

“Make yourself at home.” Melanie muttered the words as she put the cat’s dishes in the dishwasher. “Doesn’t this bother you at all? This cat just waltzed into your home and took over.” She addressed the words to Fluff, who continued to snore in her little pink bed. “Apparently not.”

She’d put it out before she retired for the night, but it had been sleeping on the end of her bed the next morning. It left soon after breakfast, but had returned later that night and every night since. She’d started calling him Cooper and finally broke down and bought him a blue collar and heart-shaped name tag yesterday. She’d made a vet appointment for him, too, but they couldn’t get him in until next week.

The note was attached to his new collar; she felt it when she pulled him on her lap as they settled in to watch Wheel of Fortune the next day. She didn’t really care for the game show, but it had become a habit when Aunt Karen was still alive and she’d continued to watch for some reason. “What’s this?” She unfolded the small piece of notebook paper, Pat Sajak forgotten for the moment.

Dear Nice Lady,

I love my new collar and ID tag. Thanks for taking such good care of me and giving me a warm place to sleep every night. The nice man two doors down is writing this note for me on account of me not having opposable thumbs. He noticed me leaving your house this morning. He’s a pretty nice guy and I’ve been spending my mornings with him recently. I especially enjoy helping him read his newspaper. I like to lie on it and make sure it doesn’t get away, which is a very important job, let me assure you. Every once in a while I take a bite out of one of the pages if I dislike what is written there. This morning I felt compelled to bite the sports page when the man read the score from the Astros/Braves game and said a naughty word. I wanted to express my solidarity with him in his disappointment over the Astros’ loss.

It is with some regret that I have to inform you that, while I like the color blue, I am definitely a female and feel the name “Cooper” may be a bit masculine. The nice man calls me CJ. What do you think about it? I like it a lot.

Sincerely,

CJ Catson

“What in the world?” She re-read the note and laughed softly at the way he’d written from the cat’s perspective. She bit her lip as she realized who the author must be. Two doors down to the left was an elderly widow, so it had to be the young guy two doors to the right who’d moved in six months ago. She’d only seen him from a distance, but she could tell he was good-looking. He was a police officer—she’d caught glimpses of him in his uniform and he parked his police car in his driveway—but he’d been gone for several months. She’d wondered if he moved or something. Actually, her writer’s imagination had dreamed up all sorts of scenarios that included him being deep undercover in a drug ring or organized crime syndicate. She’d seen several different young women coming and going when he was still there and figured he must be something of a ladies’ man. Should she respond to the note? What could possibly come of this? She shook her head and reached for a piece of stationary. Why should anything come of it? She could simply write back and that would be the end of it. She thought for a few minutes, then wrote quickly and folded it up before she could reconsider.

There. He could respond or not. It was totally up to him.


Finn

Finn grinned and set the binoculars aside as he waited for the cat to arrive. He realized the binoculars bordered on stalkerish, but a guy could only take so much day time television. He wheeled his chair to the kitchen table and reached for his morning newspaper, pointedly ignoring the prescription pain medication sitting on the lazy Susan. Tough it out, big guy! He was desperately afraid of getting hooked, so he only took them when the pain was unbearable. Instead, he popped two Tylenol and gritted his teeth.

“Mrow.”

“Morning, CJ.” Finn greeted his part-time pet as she leaped to the table and took up her position right in the middle of the sports page. “What have you got for me?” He’d watched through the binoculars as the cute girl two doors down had checked the note fastened to the cat’s collar before putting her down on the porch. Not that he was interested or anything. He’d simply noticed she was cute. Thanks to the accident, he was in no fit state to start anything with anyone no matter how attractive. Nor was he inclined. Tatiana had seen to that.

He unfolded the small scrap of pink paper and smoothed it on the table top.

Dear Nice Man,

The nice lady is shocked. It took her quite a while to even speak to me again. She thought I only visited her and was surprised to hear I spend the day with you. I told her it wasn’t at all personal; I just have a big personality and feel I must share it with all my fans. What would you and Nice Lady do without the privilege of feeding and housing me? I hope you both realize how lucky you are.

Now don’t be cranky, but Nice Lady doubts your assessment of my gender. She wants to know how you can tell. She also wants to know what CJ stands for.

Sincerely,

Cooper Catson

P.S. Nice Lady hopes you have a nice day.

He chuckled aloud, startling the cat. “Is she as feisty as this note makes her sound?”

The cat stared at him, but didn’t answer. She returned to her grooming, licking her paw and wiping it across her torn ear.

“Nothing? Come on! Give a guy a break. She sits in that house all day and I can’t tell what she does. I don’t see a boyfriend—or a girlfriend for that matter. What’s her story?” He backed his wheelchair away from the kitchen table and found some more notebook paper in his desk. He chewed on the end of his pen while he tried to decide what to write. He heard a key in the front door, but most of his attention was devoted to writing the note.

“Hey, Finn. How are you feeling this morning?” His sister, Cara, leaned down to kiss his head before setting the grocery bags she carried on the counter.

“Like I got hit by a car. Did you remember to get milk?” He didn’t look up from the note.

“Hilarious, really. And yes, I got milk. Did you eat anything for breakfast yet? You shouldn’t take your pain meds on an empty stomach.” She popped two pieces of bread in the toaster as she spoke.

Finn dropped the pen and wheeled away from the table, heading into the living room.

“Where are you going?” Cara called.

“I’m looking for Mom. I hear so much nagging I’m sure she must be around here somewhere.”

“Ooh, you’re in a sassy mood this morning. Get your busted up ass over here and eat some toast.” She set a plate of toast and a glass of orange juice in front of him as he returned to the table. “Since when do you have a cat?” She scooped the feline into her arms.

“She’s just visiting. Thanks for breakfast, sis. And for picking up the groceries.”

“No problem. Mom’s freaking out about you being by yourself here. She’s sure you’re going to starve to death. Oh, you’re a sweet kitty, yes you are,” she crooned to the cat in her arms. CJ was lapping it up, rubbing her face against Cara’s chin.

“Mom worries too much. I’ll be fine. I love her to death, but she was starting to drive me nuts.” He’d been staying with his parents since he was released from the rehab center, but had needed to return to his own home for his mental health. His parents were great, but the hovering was starting to get to him. He’d staged a rebellion and insisted on returning to his house three days ago. His parents and siblings were taking turns stopping by with groceries and to do the various housekeeping chores he wasn’t able to manage yet. Well, that’s what his mom and sisters did. His dad and brothers were more likely to bring a pizza and a six-pack.

“Whatcha writing?” Cara leaned over his shoulder.

“Nosy much? It’s a note to CJ’s owner.”

She snatched the note. “CJ? Her tag says Cooper. Nice Lady? You don’t know her owner’s name?”

Finn sighed and ran his hand over his jaw, realizing he badly needed a shave. “God, Cara. Stop talking for two seconds and I’ll answer your infernal questions. And give me back my note.”

“Don’t pay attention to the nasty-tempered man, Kitty. He’s just cranky because he’s hurting and won’t take his pain pills.”

Not much got by his sharp-eyed sister. “Yeah, well I don’t want to get through all this just to end up a junkie. Tylenol is fine. Now do you want to hear the story or are you going to keep harassing me?”

“I’m done harassing you. For the moment.” She handed him back the sheet of paper.

He chuckled and told his sister how the cat had shown up on his second morning home, slipping in the front door when he’d opened it for the mailman, who was kind enough to hand Finn his newspaper and mail when he delivered a package and realized his customer was in a wheelchair. He’d promised to keep it up until Finn could manage for himself. “She showed up with the brand-new collar and tag yesterday. I sent a note back, attached to the collar, letting the owner know the cat’s female and I call her CJ.” He handed her the note he’d received in return.

Cara read it, smiling. “She sounds fun. Do you have any idea which neighbor it is?”

“Two doors down on the left.” He winced as he realized he’d given too much information. Damn. He’d never been able to keep anything from Cara.

“How do you—oooh!” She’d spied the binoculars. “How Jimmy Stewart of you, Finn!” She leapt out of her chair, released the cat, and danced into the living room to grab them up. “So, has anyone murdered his wife and chopped her into tiny pieces?”

“Not as far as I can tell, but the old lady across the street has been digging in her flower beds, so maybe there’s hope.”

Cara laughed. “I thought you were crazy when you bought a house in this senior citizen neighborhood, but maybe it’s more exciting than I was expecting. I can’t see any sign of Nice Lady.”

Finn had bought the house six months ago when his former partner’s wife, a real estate agent, had told him about what a great deal it was. Small, neat, with a gorgeous yard and old, established trees, the one-story brick house was perfect for a single guy who was tired of throwing away money on rent. The older, quiet neighborhood appealed to him and he’d had visions of settling down and starting a family. He was twenty-nine and it was starting to feel like the right thing to do. He’d been on the verge of asking his girlfriend to move in, had actually been thinking about it during his run that morning nearly three months before. It was the last thing he’d thought about until he woke up ten days later in the hospital. “She doesn’t poke her nose out very often. I’ve only seen her a couple times.”

“Well, maybe Miss CJ will help you meet her and a few more of your neighbors. Who knows?”

“Yeah, who knows?”


Melanie

Dear Nice Lady,

Nice Man says you should never doubt him about anything when it comes to pets. He says he and his five siblings had every possible pet known to man, including a piglet. The sure-fire way to tell I am indeed a girl is to 1) lift my tail. Go ahead. I’ll get over the indignity eventually. 2) The opening just under the tail is the anus. Below the anus is the genital opening which is round in males and is a vertical slit in females. See? Mine is quite vertical, isn’t it? Therefore, I am a girl. The nice man wants me to assure you he is not really an insufferable know-it-all and is willing to call me Cooper if it’s really important to you.

On the off-chance you’re not terribly attached to the name Cooper, CJ stands for Calamity Jane. He won’t tell me why he calls me that and I am quite irritated with him. I certainly hope you will have the courtesy to explain his rude laughter. I don’t like when people have fun at my expense. I am twitching my tail at him as he writes. I may have to bite him. I’ll let you know.

Sincerely,

CJ/Cooper Catson

P.S. Nice Man hopes you have a nice day, too.

Melanie chuckled and kissed the cat’s head. “Well, Cooper, it appears he has a sense of humor. I wonder what his name is?” She had no intention of actually finding out, of course. That wasn’t an option. No, she’d stay in her aunt’s house—hers now, she supposed, although it didn’t seem real yet—and mind her own business. She wasn’t a hermit by any stretch, but she worked from home and preferred to keep to herself in her leisure hours. There weren’t many of those between her graphic design clients and her writing, but she had a very limited social circle and she liked it that way. She wasn’t good with people she didn’t know.

“Mrow.”

“Would you mind if I took a quick peek under your tail? I know it’s terribly intrusive, but he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.” She turned the cat and lifted the tail. “He’s right. You’re a girl. CJ, huh? I guess I can go with it, but you don’t need all the gritty details about your namesake.” She decided she’d make a quick trip to Pets Mart after dinner for a new collar and tag.

Both CJ and Fluff perked up when they smelled the salmon Melanie was preparing and she ended up splitting the fillet with them. CJ jumped on the table when she finished her portion and proceeded to wash, licking her paws and rubbing them across her furry face. Fluff retreated to her little pink bed and was soon snoring. “Don’t get used to this kind of dinner every night. You caught me in a weak moment.” She cleared the table and washed her dishes by hand, enjoying the warmth of the sudsy water. Aunt Karen had finally had a dishwasher installed last year, right before Melanie moved in. She had never bothered before, claiming a single woman had no need for one, but had wanted to make things as easy as possible for her great-niece. Melanie wouldn’t have cared and often still washed up by hand. She changed out of her yoga pants, donning a pair of jeans in honor of actually leaving the house, and checked her hair. She sighed at her reflection, wishing there was just a bit more...oomph. There was nothing hideous, of course, but everything about her was so average. Average height, common brown hair, brown eyes, and an extremely average figure. Nothing like any of the women she’d seen coming and going from her neighbor’s house. Ugh! Why did she have to think about that now? Her fragile self-esteem certainly didn’t need any more blows. Snap out of it, girl! Nobody likes a pity party.

At the store, she chose a pink rhinestone collar for CJ and added a few toys and treats, including some for Fluff. For someone who never planned to own a pet, she was suddenly spending an inordinate amount of money and time on two of them. Oh, well. She could afford it, especially since Aunt Karen had left everything to Melanie, including the house. It wasn’t riches, exactly, but it certainly eased the budget strain. Melanie would trade it all for five more minutes with her aunt, but knew it was a selfish wish since her aunt had been in such pain toward the end, the cancer eating away at her wasted body. She pushed the maudlin memories aside and focused her thoughts on the furry beasts waiting for her at home. The two animals were company and kept her from talking to herself. Besides, they were awfully cute.

“Miss CJ, you look glorious!” The cat was practically prancing, showing off her new collar. “And you, too, Fluff. You are beautiful.” Was it her imagination, or did the elderly dog seem younger since the cat showed up? “You two will have to amuse yourselves with your new toys because I have several hours of work ahead still.” Nevertheless, she spent a few more minutes throwing the catnip mouse for CJ.

She stepped onto the front porch for a few minutes of fresh evening air and gazed down the street toward his house. The curtains were closed, but the lights were on and a car was in the driveway. Another girlfriend? The same one as before? She wondered where he’d been for the past few months and why he was suddenly back. She stared for a few more minutes then went back inside to write for several hours. Days were for graphic design, her paying job, but evenings were set aside for the romance novels she adored writing. She dreamed of one day writing full time, but her current royalty checks were somewhat underwhelming, to say the least.

She fired up her laptop and lost herself for the next three hours.


Finn

Dear Nice Man,

Well, it’s official: I’m a girl. Nice Lady checked and realized you were correct. She’s somewhat embarrassed, but she’ll get over it, I’m sure. Best of all, she gave me a bit of salmon to make up for getting all up in my business. All she will tell me about my name is that it is in honor of a heroine of the Wild West, but she was definitely smirking when she said it, so I’m not sure I trust her.

Nice Lady is still reeling about the fact that you have five siblings! She’s an only child and says she can’t imagine what growing up in such a large family was like. She wants to know if you’re the oldest, youngest, etc.? She worries that she’s being nosy, though, and, if so, apologizes and retracts the question.

Either way, she hopes you have a lovely day and enjoy reading your newspaper.

Sincerely,

CJ Catson

Finn grinned and stroked the cat purring on his lap. He’d noticed the glitzy collar right away and had eagerly checked for a note. He’d been worried his last note had offended her and the amusing exchange would be over, nixing the possibility of ever meeting her. God, I need to get out of this chair! I’m desperate enough to look forward to passing notes with my mysterious neighbor via a damn cat. If she’d wanted to meet, she would have come by to introduce herself when I first moved in. He refused to entertain the idea that he could have done the same thing. He’d been so busy with work, family, and his girlfriend he hadn’t made time to meet neighbors. But two of those things were no longer an issue, so he found himself with time on his hands to be curious.

The pounding on the front door startled the cat. “Finn? You in there? Open the goddamn door! My hands are full!”

He wheeled to the door and opened it to reveal his partner, Chris, holding two cups of coffee and a brown bag clutched precariously under one arm. “Where else would I be? Please say you brought bagels.”

She stepped past him, dropping the bag in his lap. “Of course I brought bagels. You look like shit, by the way.”

“Really?” he asked around a giant bite of green chile bagel with a plain shmear—Chris knew exactly what he liked—and wheeled after her to the kitchen table. “I guess I should go change into my tux, huh? You think it’ll fit over this giant-ass cast?”

“I’ll help you rip the pants open. Okay, no tux, but when was the last time you shaved? This homeless look doesn’t do much for you.” She handed him the coffee she’d brought for him, strong and dark, as he preferred.

He scratched his scruffy beard at her words. “I agree, but I can’t stand in front of the mirror yet, so homeless it is. Unless you want to lend a hand?”

“Ah, hell to the no, partner. That’s definitely a job for your mom or Tat—” She stopped, horrified at her slip. “God, Finn! I’m sorry. I forgot.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” It was anything but fine.

“That bitch! She didn’t deserve you.” Chris tossed her half-eaten bagel on the table and grabbed her coffee cup angrily.

“Yeah, well it doesn’t matter anymore. So, what’s new at the precinct? Any interesting cases?” He was grateful she hadn’t requested a new partner, apparently resigned to waiting for him to recuperate. They’d only been working together for a couple months when he’d been taken out of commission by a hit-and-run driver.

“Not really. We picked up that John Doe discovered behind the dumpster. It’s been pretty slow. People just aren’t killing each other in this town lately.”

“Selfish bastards! Are they trying to put us out of a job?”

She chuckled and he hoped they could move past her inadvertent mention of his ex. “Well, we may be light on new cases, but there are plenty of cold cases sitting around gathering dust. You game for glancing through a few files while you sit around here on your ass?”

He was barely able to tamp down his enthusiasm. He was dying of boredom and would kill for a chance to do some actual work. “I guess I could set aside my bonbons and turn off my soaps for a couple hours. Can you bring them by tomorrow?”

Chris grinned and took another bite of her bagel, chewing slowly. “They’re in the car.”

He crumpled his napkin and threw it at her. “Brat.”

“You love me. You know you do.”

“It’s a good thing, huh?” She was his first partner since he’d made detective and they had hit it off immediately. She was a large, intimidating woman a few years older than Finn who took nonsense from no one. Whenever they questioned a perp, she was definitely the bad cop, something that amused Finn no end.

“So, what’s with the cat? I thought you were allergic.” CJ had made her way from Finn’s lap, across the kitchen table, and onto Chris’s lap.

“No, that was Tatiana. She was allergic to everything, even cinnamon.”

“What? No one’s allergic to cinnamon. That’s bullshit!”

“Well, that’s what she told me.” He really didn’t want to talk about his ex-girlfriend. He’d woken up from a 10-day coma to discover she couldn’t handle the stress and had left. His family had to tell him about the break-up. Christ, he’d been about to ask her to move in with him! He’d actually contemplated marrying her! His radar was obviously broken.

“I think she had a pathological need for attention, that’s what I think. You can do so much better, Finn.”

“Can we talk about something else, please? Anything but my love life. I’m begging you.”

“Sorry. So, did you watch the game last night?”

Finn was grateful and they spent the next few minutes dissecting the baseball game from the night before. Before she left for work she brought in the cold case files she’d promised.

“Maybe you can find something. It would sure be nice to make some headway with any of these.”

“Yeah, well I can give them my total attention since I’ve got literally nothing better to do.”

“You won’t fore-go your PT, though, will you?” She looked worried.

“Nah. I need to get out of this chair, so I won’t neglect physical therapy. I may be able to start using crutches soon.”

“That’s great, Finn! How soon before you can come back to work?”

He was saved from answering the question by the arrival of his brother, Hugh. “Hey, Finn. I just stopped by to tell you I’m sending a crew over to build the ramp for your wheel chair. Oh, hey, Chrissy. Good to see you.”

Chrissy? He’d never heard anyone refer to his partner as Chrissy. He valiantly attempted to hide a smirk as he prepared to hear her rip Hugh a new one. He glanced across the table at her and was shocked to see her glancing down at the tabletop and—was she blushing? What. The. Hell?

“Hi, Hugh. Nice to see you, too.”

Finn flipped his head back and forth between the two of them, confused. What am I missing? “Hugh, man, I appreciate it. You’ll make sure it doesn’t wreck my porch, won’t you? I don’t plan to need it very long.”

“Sure, of course I will. You’re gonna be up and out of that chair before we know it. Hey, I didn’t know you have a cat.” CJ had been winding herself around Hugh’s ankles and he bent down to pet her.

“I have joint custody. She spends her mornings here.”

“Huh. Okay. Well, I need to get going. The crew should be here in about an hour. You up for watching the game tonight? I’ll bring the beer.”

“Cool. I’ll order the pizza.”

“Great. I’ll be her around seven. See you, Chrissy.” He left after giving the cat one last pat.

Finn switched his gaze to his partner, who busied herself cleaning up the bagel wrappers and paper bag, not meeting Finn’s eyes. “Chrissy?”

“Shut up.”

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