Are You Kitten Me
Free to Good Home: two sweet males, need lots of love!
Shane Maguire is over-stressed and under-loved. He’s finally landed a respectable job at an upscale restaurant, but the brutal hours have butchered his chances at romance. When his dad suggests he fill the void with a pet, Shane agrees and falls head-over-heels for a gorgeous shelter kitten. There’s only one problem: the handsome stranger who claims he saw her first. They can’t both adopt her, so Shane proposes they share custody . . . of a cat. What could go wrong?
Damian Murphy used to love working from home, but prolonged isolation has made the passing days a blur. He hopes his adorable new tabby will shake things up. Now if only Shane would stop insisting she’s their cat and disappear already, same as all the other men in his life. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is to deny their smoldering chemistry.
Meatball is a kitten. She is very cute, which is important because of reasons. For such a little cat, Meatball has big problems. Her dads are in denial, and as much as she enjoys watching them dance around each other, they need a claw in the right direction. If the three of them are going to be a real family, someone will have to play matchmaker. And Meatball is just the intrepid kitty for the job.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, angst, anxiety, bullying, commitment, duty, enemies to lovers, family, geeks / nerds, illness / injury, isolation, mental illness, pets, power imbalance, self-confidence, trust issues
Afternoon sunlight splashed through curtained windows and pooled on a small kitchen table. The wood warmed under Shane’s hand as he thumbed a thin scratch he’d swear hadn’t been there a week ago. Cardboard boxes of various sizes dotted the tile floors, waiting to be unpacked.
Much of the furniture—from the oversized sofa to the overstuffed bookshelves—looked secondhand. Mostly because it was, but according to the home-decorating magazines stacked on the coffee table, that made it “eclectic.” Nothing matching meant everything went together. Who knew?
Shane perched on the counter by the sink and surveyed his one-bedroom apartment. Not bad, all in all. A little on the small side, but it was cozy enough, with a fresh coat of blue paint and potted herbs growing in the windowsill. Their earthy smell mingled with the scent of lemon dish soap and old cookbooks. Once he’d gotten a couple of paychecks and had recuperated his moving expenses, he’d pick out “real” furniture. Like an adult.
More important than Shane’s evaluation was the smile on his father’s face as he milled around the space, toeing the well-trodden rugs.
“Better than my first post-college apartment, that’s for sure.” Dad paused at an end table by the sofa and inspected an array of photos. Sandy hair fell across his lined brow—same as Shane’s, though gray swarmed at his temples. Faces beamed from the frames: Shane’s parents, friends from school, and a grape-like cluster of people wearing identical aprons and tall white hats. Dad selected one and held it up. “Remember this?”
“Freshman year,” Shane answered, swinging his long legs like a child. “My first real cooking competition. If only I’d taken victory as a sign, I could have saved you and Mom a lot of hassle.”
He’d meant it, but Dad laughed. “It worked out in the end. At least you got the college experience, even if it was only for a year.”
Shane glanced away to hide a wince. “Better than nothing, I guess.”
Oblivious, Dad made his way to an armchair and plopped into it. “I give this place four dad jokes out of five.”
“Of course.” Dad’s face was dead serious. “The fifth one’s free.”
Shane groaned, but that only made Dad laugh harder. Remembering his manners, he hopped off the counter. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Nah, I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? I squeezed fresh orange juice this morning. Or I can make tea, or—”
“Will you relax, champ? Your place looks great, and seeing you settled is more than enough for me. Though I wouldn’t say no to a light snack. Your ma is on another smoothie kick. I’m one overripe banana away from eating my own hand.”
“Yikes. Coming right up.” Shane plucked a loaded charcuterie board off the stovetop. It featured apricots he’d candied himself, an assortment of artisan cheeses diced into cubes, plump green olives, and salami slices rolled into rosebuds. He floated over and presented it to Dad with a flourish. In the maître d’ voice he’d perfected over the years, he said, “May I offer you an amuse-bouche, my good sir?”
Dad selected a cube and popped it into his mouth. “Mm, delicious. What is that, cheddar? Almost tastes like ham.”
“Smoked gouda.” Shane smiled brightly. “I’m glad it’s gouda.”
“Maybe leave the dad jokes to me, son.”
“Yeah, that was pretty bad. Try the apricots next. They’re fresh from the local farmers’ market. I just wish I’d had time to soak some pears in brandy and bake them.”
Dad blinked at him.
“I’m doing too much again, aren’t I?”
“Maybe a smidge. I’d think you’d be too exhausted from work to go to all this trouble.”
“And miss an opportunity to show off for my dad? Perish the thought.” Shane set the board on the coffee table within reach, snapped a quick photo for his Foodstagram, and collapsed onto the sofa. More like into it; springs creaked in agony as he sunk down three inches. “Anything new in your life?”
Dad shrugged. “Same shit, different toilet. Ma sends her love. She wants you to call her later.”
“It’ll have to be much later or tomorrow. I’m still on the dinner shift.”
“Tomorrow it is. I’ll let her know.” Dad folded his hands over the little potbelly poking out from under his oil-stained shirt. “That cooking class you recommended is going well.”
“Really? Mom said she had to drag you to it. Not so much kicking and screaming as swearing and bargaining with God.”
“Okay, you got me. I was a bit reluctant at first. Didn’t think my food was bad enough to warrant professional help.”
“Your specialty was tuna casserole.” Shane shuddered. “Hot out of the microwave.”
“Yeah, yeah, everyone’s a critic. I still don’t see why you can’t teach me.”
Shane mimicked his father’s earlier serious expression. “Dad, I love you. I would take a bullet for you. But if I have to show you how to use a stand mixer, one of us won’t make it out alive.”
Dad chuckled. “Fair enough. We’re learning sauces right now. Here I thought your options were tomato or cheese, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. And we’ve only covered the French ones.”
Shane plucked a petal off a salami rose and palmed it into his mouth. Salt and spice exploded on his tongue, amplified by the juicy olive that followed. “Wait until you get to Italian cuisine. You’ll learn there are degrees of tomato sauce. Shades. Hues, if you will.”
“You know . . .” Dad fiddled with a stray thread sticking out of the arm of his chair in a way that was a bit too casual, “last week, our teacher broke us up into pairs, and I’ve been working with this real sweet lady.”
“Ah, the buddy system.” Shane nodded sagely. “Classic.”
“Yup, she’s around my age and grew up in the area too. She was also talked into taking the class by her malnourished family.” He smiled at his own joke.
Shane narrowed his eyes. “Sounds like you have a lot in common. Should Mom and I be worried?”
Dad leaned over and gave Shane’s arm a light smack. “What do you take me for? Anyway, we got chatting about our kids—or kid, in my case—and it turns out she has a son who’s only a few years older than—”
Shane wailed like a dying animal. “For the love of God, no more blind dates. Why are you always trying to set me up? Are you secretly a Victorian widower with six eligible daughters? Does our future depend on me securing an advantageous marriage?”
“You read too many books. Your ma and I want you to know we support you and your . . . Is it totally cliché to say ‘lifestyle’?”
“Afraid so, Dad.”
“Well, her son sounds like a nice young man. He’s got a steady job, and he loves animals.”
Shane quirked a brow. “Funny, I don’t remember putting ‘must love dogs’ in my Tinder bio. The dating bar is so low these days. He’s employed and doesn’t kick puppies for fun? That’s it?”
“It’s a green flag, okay? Animals can sense good people.” Dad shoveled more cheese into his mouth. He was still chewing when he spoke next. “But all right, if you say so. No more blind dates.”
“Ah, I see. The last dozen times you said that you were kidding. But now you mean it.”
“Smartass. That brings me to my next point.”
Shane stretched his back, stiff from hunching over the stove. “I’m really not in the mood to talk about my dearth of romantic prospects.”
“I was going to ask about your apartment. How long is your lease?”
Shane bit back a pained wheeze. Like the prophet Cassandra, he’d seen this conversation coming and had been powerless to stop it. “You don’t have to worry about me, I swear. I know I needed some help after I graduated, but things are different now. I’ll never come crawling back home again.”
Was it his imagination or had dark clouds billowed across the sky as soon as he’d said that aloud?
Dad crinkled his nose as if he’d smelled something foul. “Son, you could have stayed forever. Your ma cried for a week when you left for college. That’s not the issue.”
And yet, Shane lay awake at night regardless, thinking about what a burden he’d been on his folks. They were a good few years away from retirement. In his worst nightmares, they were still hustling in their golden years, providing for their deadbeat son who never got his shit together.
He dispelled the image with a quick shake of his head. “It’s a twelve-month lease. Why?”
Dad cleared his throat of cheese debris. “If you’re going to be here for a while, you should make it your own. This is a fine place, but it’s missing something.”
“I don’t know what that is, but I trust your taste. In my expert opinion as a professional dad, I think you could use someone else around the house.”
Shane looked him up and down. “But this isn’t about my love life?”
“No, it’s about having a companion. Maybe a dog, or hell, cats are cute. Trust me, I lived the single life for a long time before I met your ma. It’s comforting to have another heartbeat under your roof. And you’d always have an excuse to leave boring work functions. ‘I gotta walk Spot’ or whatever. It’s perfect.”
Huh, a dog. He’d begged his parents for a puppy a few birthdays in a row, but he was pretty sure most kids went through that phase. The closest he’d come to pet ownership was winning a carnival goldfish that’d gone belly-up within twenty-four hours. Not the most auspicious start.
“I don’t know,” Shane said, already drafting a pros-and-cons list in his head. “Dogs need a regular schedule, and my hours are all over the place.”
And brutal. Twelve-hour shifts, fifty-plus hours a week. Minimum.
“Promise me you’ll think about it. No need to make a decision today, but this complex is full of families. I bet one of your neighbors’ kids would love to walk the dog while you’re at work and earn some pocket money.” Dad paused. “Or, you know, if you were to meet a man . . . say, an animal lover. Then he could—”
“That’s it. I’m putting a moratorium on dating talk.” Shane swirled words around in his mouth, trying to pick out the right ones by taste alone. “But I will think about it. I have to admit, it’s been lonely going from a house filled with family to an empty apartment. I love having my own space, but last night I caught myself telling the ficus about my day.” He gestured to a decorative shrub by the back door.
“Doesn’t that help plants grow faster?”
“Not when they’re plastic.”
“Well, I hear dogs are fantastic listeners.” Dad tugged at the loose thread again. “I may have called the local shelter on my way over here. You know, the one on Third and Main?”
“It was for your ma, I promise. Since you left, she’s been talking about getting a bird, of all things. To fill our empty nest, I suppose. Do shelters even have birds?” Dad shook his head. “Anyway, good news: the lady I spoke to says they don’t do home inspections.”
Shane’s feathers ruffled despite himself. “Why shouldn’t they inspect my apartment? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, but I figured you wouldn’t want a bunch of strangers trampling through your new bachelor pad.” Dad’s phone beeped, and he dug it out of a frayed jean pocket. “It’s the boys from the auto shop. I gotta get going. Let’s do this again soon, okay? When we have more time, I’d love to pick your brain about something called a morning sauce.”
Shane grinned. “You mean a Mornay sauce?”
“That’s the one.”
“They bumped you up from béchamel already? You must be the star pupil.”
“Yeah, yeah. All this nutmeg and Gruyère and unsalted butter nonsense makes my head spin.” Dad rose to his feet, knees creaking like boughs in a storm. “I’ll get out of your hair. Or chair, rather.” That earned another groan from Shane, which Dad blissfully ignored. “I’ve got tires that need rotating, and you have plenty of unpacking to do still.”
True as that was, Shane’s heart throbbed as he walked his father to the threshold and hugged him goodbye. If he held on a little tighter than usual, Dad didn’t comment. After a final reminder to call Mom, Dad shuffled out into the bright spring sunshine, and Shane shut the door with a sigh.
He stood stock-still in the living room, head cocked toward the murmured voices soaking through the thin walls without really hearing them. His thoughts ticked like gears. A dog might be exactly what he needed. It’d be nice to come home and feel like someone was happy to see him. Someone had missed him. Someone had noticed he wasn’t there.
Did he have time to drop by the shelter?
Shane consulted his phone. In an hour and a half, he’d be right on schedule, which Chef Antoine would view as outrageous tardiness. That could work in Shane’s favor, though. Having a time constraint meant he couldn’t make any impulsive decisions; he’d have to think about it like he’d promised.
A mixture of nerves and uncertainty gurgled in Shane’s gut. He dressed prematurely for work, donning a crisp white shirt and black slacks. Under normal circumstances, he’d drive, but a light breeze whistled a siren song through the tree limbs outside his window. They tapped on the glass, loaded with tiny buds that would unfurl into emerald leaves in the coming months.
His running shoes lay neglected by the doorway, gazing dolefully up as if to ask what they’d done to deserve such treatment. Fucking night shifts. They always left Shane too bone-tired to stand, let alone jog. But a pre-shift walk—and a break from all the unpacking—would do him good.
He exited through the glass back door, which opened into a large courtyard in the center of his red-brick building. Most of the adults and children were at work or school, respectively, but a group of older women standing under a tree took a break from their gossip to wave at Shane as he passed. He winked back, inspiring a round of adorable giggling.
At least someone found him charming. Dad seemed to think there was a glut of single gay men secreted away somewhere in their seaside town, but Shane hadn’t had much luck finding them. His complete lack of free time didn’t help either.
A quick glance at his phone confirmed he still had over an hour left before work. Breaking into a light trot, he opened the iron gate at the mouth of the courtyard and sidled through right as his stomach gurgled. Damn, he’d burned through breakfast making that charcuterie board. He should’ve grabbed some salami for the road.
If he skipped the shelter and arrived early—or earlier than was demanded, at least—he could scarf down some of the leftovers the breakfast crew always stashed in the back. Same as the night shift did with any choice cuts of meat that were going to end up in a dumpster. It was a solidarity thing. And on the off chance they were busy on a Tuesday, it might be Shane’s only shot at sustenance for hours.
His feet, however, seemed unconcerned by his stomach’s plight. They wandered down the worn sidewalk in the general direction of his place of employment but with a decided slant toward “downtown”: three quasi-large office buildings, none of which scraped the sky so much as glanced wistfully at it from a safe distance.
Back when he’d first started apartment-hunting, Mom had insisted on touring the neighborhood with him as if they hadn’t lived nearby their entire lives. Playgrounds filled with chubby-cheeked toddlers? Check. Small shops with velvety succulents in the windows? Check. Nothing exciting happened ever? Check. It was a sleepy town all right.
Come to think of it, hadn’t Mom casually pointed out the animal shelter on Third and Main as well? It was official: after thirty years of blissful matrimony, Shane’s parents had become a hive mind. As their child, he was contractually obligated to find it embarrassing. Yucky, as five-year-old him would have said. But, truthfully, he envied them. He’d take the stability of married life over the “thrill” of being single any damn day.
Adulthood was supposed to be a big adventure that culminated in a fairy-tale ending. But in Shane’s experience, it was more like a to-do list that gained two new tasks every time he crossed one off. Uneventful weeks slid into monotonous months, and all Shane had to show for it was lower back pain.
His feet won the debate Shane hadn’t realized they’d been having. He found himself standing in front of the shelter: a nondescript cinderblock building with a large fenced yard stretching around to the back. Muffled yips and thudding paws echoed down the quiet street.
A bubble of excitement expanded in his chest. If he was here anyway, he might as well go in. Just for a quick peek. He was not going to adopt the first dog he laid eyes on, and if his resolve wavered, the time constraint would keep his promise. Besides, Bring Your Pet to Work Day wasn’t a thing in his industry. Health codes and such. Though customers were allowed to bring their dogs onto the patio . . .
No. Shane would stop in for five minutes, see what the adoption process was like, and then go straight to work. His apartment wasn’t pet-ready anyway. There were shelves to put up, and dishes to clean, and—
The bubble popped like an overinflated balloon. A scenario played in his head: The shelter workers took one look at him before declaring, correctly, that he was in no position to care for another living creature. Then Shane was tarred, feathered, and chased out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob, never to return.
He shook his head. The bell above the door jingled when he walked in, bringing apprehension with it. He stepped into a reception area that he could only describe as overwhelmingly beige.
The noise registered first. Not only barking dogs and meowing cats but a dozen or so people bustling around like they had somewhere important to be. An assorted bunch too—all ages, sizes, and shapes. Pets must be a universal language. Next came the aroma. It smelled like the park on an overcast day: grass trimmings with a splash of damp fur.
A long counter separated the employees from the . . . customers? Adopters? Rows of folding chairs were dotted with figures bent over clipboards. Probably filling out paperwork.
Before sensory overload could chase Shane right back out the door, a woman in a teal shirt with a white logo materialized before him. Her nametag read, Taina, in block letters. “Whatcha looking for, hun?”
What a coincidence. Shane would love to know the answer to that question.
“A dog.” He scratched his nose, though it didn’t itch. “Maybe a puppy.”
Taina gave him a once-over, and Shane stiffened like dried glue. “You’ve come to the right place. Can I give you some advice?”
“Go for a dog. And I’m not just saying that because everyone picks the cute babies over the adults. Puppies need a lot of attention.”
Wow, Shane’s apocalyptic vision hadn’t been that far off. He must look as tired as he felt, and he still had a long shift ahead of him.
Shane shuffled his feet. “Sorry, a dog, then.”
“No need to apologize, hun. I certainly don’t want to discourage you from adopting. Kitten season is in full swing, and we’re at capacity.” She swiveled in place and pointed behind her. “The puppy kennels are down the hallway to the left. If you go out the double doors, you’ll find the big dogs in their play area. Small dogs are next to that. And please keep an eye out when you’re entering and exiting. Our many escape artists have been working overtime today.”
Shane thanked her and scurried off in the direction she’d indicated. He passed several glass-doored rooms, which contained kittens that were too young to be adopted yet, judging by their shuttered eyes and vibrating limbs. He paused long enough to coo at a pint-sized black panther who was pawing blindly at the partition, before he rounded the corner.
As Taina had described, the kennels were up ahead, along with two sets of glass double doors. Through them, Shane could see a mulched yard covered in colorful playground equipment. Dogs of all breeds and hues wrestled with toys and chased each other around the fenced perimeter.
One Labrador ran the circuit over and over and over until Shane felt dizzy from watching. Did dogs ever run out of energy? Could Shane keep up? Anxiety gnawed on his bones. Fuck, this was the exact indecision that had led to him dating Joey “Smoker’s Cough” Kunz for three weeks in high school.
A flash of movement drew his attention to the left. More wire cages had been stacked against the wall, lined with padded mats. A handful of people were perusing them: an old man holding a little girl’s hand, another teal shirt, and a guy dressed in black with his back turned.
Shane squinted through the bars, and it became apparent why these cages had been separated from the puppies. They were packed with kittens. Not as young as the ones he’d passed earlier, but their big heads and triangle tails belied their age. The adults must have their own area somewhere else.
A wobbly tortoiseshell cat locked eyes with Shane and let out a plaintive mew.
“Aw, cutie,” he said out loud without thinking.
To his abject horror, the black-clad man glanced over. And he was hot.
Shane flapped a hand in the air. “Not you! The, uh, kittens.”
The man blinked and turned wordlessly back around. Shane would’ve kicked himself if he could bend that way. He hadn’t gotten a perfect view during their five-second exchange, but the mystery man was around Shane’s age with dark hair and eyes. And he had some serious bone structure. Oh, the bone structure. Sharp as a knife.
Should he say something? Apologize? Would that make things worse? God, he’d been single for way too long. He’d completely forgotten how to flirt. Or act vaguely human.
He drifted over despite himself, but Hottie McCheekBones was engrossed in conversation with an employee. So much for that. Shane covered his blunder by pretending to study the cages. After a minute or so, he would casually head for the dogs as intended.
Bright eyes caught his attention. They stared at him from the second-to-last kennel on the right, poking out of a pile of sleeping babies. A beautiful orange—almost red like a fox—kitten extradited herself (himself?) from the throng and pawed at the door.
“Oh, you are gorgeous,” Shane murmured as he hurried over. An information sheet pinned to the cage said the orange tabby was a nameless girl they’d gotten in the day before. Twelve weeks old, two pounds. The closer Shane leaned to the bars, the harder she pawed, eyes sparkling and whiskers wiggling. When he dangled his index finger in front of her face, she sniffed it before giving him a tiny sandpaper lick.
Shane’s heart filled with confetti and then burst like a piñata.
“Ah, there you are.” Taina had appeared as if by magic. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t get lost, but it seems I shouldn’t have worried. I know that face. Love at first sight?”
“No.” The lie weighed on Shane’s tongue. “I’m here for a dog. Right?”
Taina giggled. “Sometimes I wonder why I bother asking people what they’re looking for. Would you like to hold her?”
“Yes, please.” Shane sounded like a child who’d been offered ice cream.
Taina unlocked the cage, quickly extracted the kitten in question, and deposited her into Shane’s trembling hands. He half expected to drop her, but she snuggled right into the dish he’d formed with his palms and then swiveled her angular head to stare at him.
Shane peered into her eyes for all of two seconds before his mouth formed the words his brain was screaming. “She’s the one. This is my cat.”
Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, what was he doing? Sweat beaded on his brow, but the kitten was soft and warm and so damn cute. One more peek at her sweet little face and Shane was hers, no denying it.
“I had a feeling! Congratulations. She’s a beauty.” Taina moved to take her back. The kitten dug sharp claws into Shane’s sleeve like she didn’t want to leave. Thankfully, she got all fabric and no flesh. The second she was back in her cage, she yowled in such an affronted way, Shane laughed.
At the sound, the hot guy glanced over—long enough for Shane to catch his gaze—before snapping back around. Was it Shane’s imagination, or had a couple of sparks flown when their eyes had met? The pure bliss flooding through Shane’s system almost convinced him to waltz over and introduce himself after all.
But Taina clapped him on the back. “Let’s get you an application. Assuming all the paperwork checks out, you can take her straight home and get settled.”
Paperwork. Home. The words were loose marbles rolling around Shane’s skull.
What time was it?
He waited for Taina to leave before whipping out his phone. Fifteen minutes had passed since he’d first arrived. How was that possible? The breath he’d been holding came out as a relieved whistle. A second later, he sucked it back in.
He had zero pet supplies, and he had to work soon. How was he going to get the kitten to the apartment, feed her nonexistent food, and make it to his shift in time? Would she be safe on her own for the next twelve hours? Did the shelter have a layaway program? Could he put a cat on hold?
A mantra of Oh God, what now? played in his head as bliss transformed into panic. Before he could work himself into a proper froth, a muted sound broke through the din. The kitten tapped at the wall of her cage with a teensy paw and gave an even teensier mew.
Shane’s pulse quieted to a manageable staccato. Either he was a huge sap, or the kitten had magical soothing powers. Possibly both. He inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. He’d figure this out, whatever it took. Calling out once wouldn’t kill him. He’d say he had a cold and then hit up a pet store for whatever she needed. Everything was going to be fine, and for once, his inner voice sounded confident.
When his lungs were back in working order, Shane patted the kitten through the bars one more time before strolling over to the kennels. Excited puppies launched themselves at him, tails wagging so hard they blurred.
“I’m sorry I’m not adopting you.” Shane pet velvet-soft ears wherever he could reach them. “I meant to, but my heart got stolen right out of my chest. Forgive me?”
The puppies gave no sign they understood, of course. Probably for the best, or Shane would be apologizing all day. He fidgeted with his phone, already dreading the call he had to make. Chef Antoine had a top-notch bullshit detector, and Shane could lie about as well as his dad could cook. Would he be fired if he blew off work an hour before his shift?
His stomach bounced around his torso like a tennis ball in a washing machine. He peeked at the kitten for comfort, but her cage was blocked by a familiar black-clad back. The other employee had disappeared, leaving the hot guy from before alone. He was hunched over, playing with Shane’s kitten.
Shane took a fortifying breath, stuffed both hands into his pockets, and sauntered that way, pretending to look at other cats before stopping next to him. “Isn’t she stunning? The red one, I mean.”
“Yeah.” The guy straightened up without looking away; he was a couple of inches taller than Shane. He smelled good too. Like musky cologne. “I wonder if her eyes will stay that blue.”
“Time will tell.” Shane chewed on his bottom lip, searching for something witty to say. He landed on a simple “I’m Shane, by the way.”
“Damian.” He finally glanced over. “Oh. It’s you.”
At least Shane had made an impression?
“Sorry about before. I, uh . . .” His mind blanked and then produced a colorful string of swear words.
“Sorry about what?” Damian blinked hazel eyes at him like he had no idea what Shane was prattling on about.
“Nothing. Forget about it.”
Damian shrugged and leaned back down to make pspspsp sounds at Shane’s kitten. And Shane couldn’t blame him. She was rubbing her body against the bars in a way that cried, Pet me, love me, give me your wallet.
The cat was better at flirting than him. Excellent. Maybe she could give him some pointers. Or maybe he wouldn’t need them. With an adorable baby animal waiting at home, he had the perfect excuse to invite over cute boys like Damian. Jackpot.
Before Shane could formulate a pickup line, Damian broke the silence. “This might be the friendliest cat I’ve ever met. You can tell she loves to be loved.”
“I know, right?” Shane gave her ear as good of a scratch as he could manage. “So calm too. She’s going to make a great pet.”
“For sure. I can’t wait to take her home.”
Shane’s heart stopped cold in his chest. “What?”
“This is my new kitten.” Damian grinned so brightly that Shane was momentarily blinded. “I’m waiting for the application as we speak.”
“You can’t adopt her!” Shane blurted out. A frog had taken up residence in his throat.
Damian’s thick eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Why not?”
“Because I’m adopting her!”
“What? No way.” Damian whirled around to face him. “You can’t be—”
“And we’re back.” Taina reappeared by Shane’s side with a clipboard in hand. “Fill these forms out, and we’ll get you on your way.”
Shane had never kissed a woman in his life, but he had half a mind to start now. He jabbed a thumb at her while glaring at Damian. “See?”
Damian’s awful, not at all soft-looking lips popped open. “What?”
Taina’s gaze darted between them. “Is something the matter?”
“Yes!” Damian cried, while at the same time, Shane shouted, “No!”
As the tension in the air went from a simmer to a boil, the employee who’d been talking to Damian strolled up with an identical clipboard in hand.
“Here are your adoption papers. Fill out the highlighted sections, and we’ll review it.” He was smiling, but when everyone stared at him in tense silence, the smile slipped off his face like it’d been soaped. “Did I miss something?”
“You and me both.” Taina’s brow furrowed. “It seems there’s been a mix-up.”
“Let me get this straight.” Damian pinched the bridge of his nose, a migraine jabbing him between the eyes. “We’re both trying to adopt the exact same cat at the exact same time? Seriously?”
“I’m really sorry,” said Tom, who Damian had learned was a volunteer from the local high school. He was practically shaking in his sneakers. Poor kid. “This almost never happens.”
“This is ridic—” Damian stopped short and patted Tom lightly on the shoulder. “Sorry. We’ll figure this out, okay? Don’t worry about it.”
Tom relaxed under Damian’s fingers and shot him a grateful look. For three whole seconds.
“I’m worried about it!” cried the kitten thief. Shane, as he’d introduced himself. His protest turned Tom’s limbs into wet noodles.
Damian glared at Shane. “Don’t take this out on the shelter workers. It’s not their fault.”
Shane narrowed light green eyes right back. “Trust me, I blame you and you alone.” He turned to the woman next to him. “This almost never happens, Taina? So, it’s not unheard of?”
“Not entirely.” Taina shrugged. “The puppies and kittens get a lot of attention. Sometimes multiple families show interest in the same day. But it’s not usually the same second.”
In true kitten-thief fashion, Shane declared, “I saw her first!”
Another tendril of pain sprouted above Damian’s eye sockets. “You got here after me. Remember?”
If the soft pink that bloomed in Shane’s cheeks was any indication, he recalled their initial exchange well. It had certainly been a learning experience for Damian. First impressions weren’t everything after all. How had he ever thought this guy was cute?
Apparently, Shane was a stubborn thief. “You weren’t looking at the kitten, though. You were standing over there, talking to Tom.”
“Yeah.” Damian crossed his arms. “About adopting the kitten.”
“That doesn’t prove anything, and Taina left to get my application first.”
Taina waved her hands, clipboard and all. “No fighting, please, or we’ll have to escort you from the premises. Both of you.”
Damian, who’d been about to fire a hot retort, shut his mouth with an audible click. Shane rolled a muscled shoulder before staring down at his shoes. Sandy hair fell artfully over his smooth brow, and Damian’s stomach flipped. He must be coming down with something.
Once they’d quieted, Taina blew out a breath. “Again, we apologize about this. Our adoption policy is first-come, first-serve. Normally, whatever party put in their paperwork first would get the animal. But neither of you have gotten to that stage yet, so we’re at an impasse.”
Shane’s head popped up. His eyes—Damian had to shoo away thoughts of fresh mint whenever he looked at them—darted to the clipboard in Taina’s hand.
For a second, Damian’s mind was blank. Then, the dots connected and flashed red like warning lights. “Don’t even think about it!”
“What?” Shane’s hand was already creeping toward the clipboard.
Taina snatched it away, tutting. “Absolutely not. You two are not going to race to see who can fill one out the fastest and end up with a big pile of scribbles. Printer ink is expensive.”
Shane’s arm dropped. “How are we going to decide, then?”
A sly remark perched on the tip of Damian’s tongue, but Shane was staring at the kitten, face pinched. She’d huddled in the back corner of her cage while the others slept on obliviously. The shouting had to be stressing her out.
Cold guilt drenched Damian, and he’d be willing to bet Shane felt the same. Sweet kitty. She didn’t deserve this. Rationally, neither did Shane. He wasn’t trying to steal the kitten, no matter how much Damian’s lizard brain screeched at him. It was a coincidence. An annoying one, but it wasn’t like either of them had planned this. And, according to the fists clenched at Shane’s sides, he had a dog in this fight, for lack of a more apropos phrase.
Damian’s outrage ebbed. He cleared his throat and switched to the soothing customer-service tone he used with irate clients. “There’s a compromise here somewhere if we can keep our cool and find it.”
Shane peeked at him with wide doe-like eyes. “You mean it?”
Good to know Damian hadn’t lost his touch. “I do. It’ll be fine.”
Tom piped up. “Maybe you two should fill out the applications. There might be something that makes one of you ineligible.”
“I’ve adopted from this shelter before,” Damian said. “Granted, it was a while ago, but if there was nothing wrong then, I doubt there will be now.” He glanced at Shane for his response. Shane’s face had panic stamped across it in bold capital letters.
Taina turned to Shane. “I hate to say it, but weren’t you interested in a dog?”
“I changed my mind.”
“Remember what I said about puppies, hun. Kittens are the same way. They need tons of time and energy. If not a dog, you might be better off with an adult cat.”
“I don’t want a cat. I want this cat.” Shane reached through the bars, and the kitten abandoned her defensive position to rub against his hand.
Jealousy thumped Damian on the back. Hard. He shook it off. “I’d also like this cat, so what are our options?”
“I got it!” Shane stuck a finger in the air like he was about to shout eureka. “The shelter has security, right? I saw the cameras when I walked in.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “Sometimes people try to steal puppies so they can sell them. Or worse.”
Shane grimaced before picking up steam again. “Let’s check the footage and see which of us asked for an application first. Whoever it was gets the cat.”
Damian snorted before he could stop himself.
Shane rounded on him. “Problem?”
“No, he’s right,” Taina said. “We could technically do that, but Tom and I are on the clock. There are other pets that would love to get adopted today, and our security is ancient. We can’t drop everything to review the feed like we’re TV crime-solvers.” She shook her head. “You’re grown men. Can’t you talk this out?”
Damian glanced at Shane, and Shane stared back. The friction was so tangible it might as well have been a shower of red sparks, but a silent agreement passed between them.
“Yes,” they said at the same time.
“We’ll leave you to it.” Taina clapped a hand on Tom’s shoulder and steered him away. “I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes. If a decision hasn’t been made by then, I’m afraid neither of you can adopt the kitten.”
Her words reverberated in the air long after she’d disappeared, ominous as tolling bells.
“Fuck,” Damian muttered.
“I agree.” Shane dragged a large hand through his hair. “What a mess.”
Word Count: 67,800
Page Count: 224
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 12/05/2022
Release Date: 12/05/2022