Venus in blue jeans, p.3

Venus in Blue Jeans, page 3

 

Venus in Blue Jeans
 



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  “To a wine bar?” Wonder’s mouth twisted in a grimace. “I assume that was a rhetorical question. Besides, don’t you have a dinner to go to?”

  “So Docia Kent doesn’t come in here much.” Cal felt even more depressed. He’d been hoping to do a little goddess-watching, at least. Maybe buy her a quick drink before heading to his dinner at the Little House on the Prairie.

  “This place is like Rick’s in Casablanca. Everybody comes in here eventually.” Wonder leaned his elbows against the sticky surface of the bar. “The trick is to wait until they come to you.”

  Cal raised an eyebrow. “So how’s that working out for you?”

  “I expect it to start working any day now.” Wonder took a long swallow of Spaten.

  —

  Docia looked down at the small plate Lee Contreras had just placed in front of Janie. “Okay, I give up, what is it?”

  “Fried mussels,” Lee explained. “In rice flour batter with lemon-cilantro dipping sauce. What do you think?”

  Janie nibbled carefully on a mussel. “Ooh, it tastes sort of like oysters. It’s super, Lee.”

  Lee gave her an indulgent smile. Janie was a great test audience.

  Docia glanced around the room as she bit into her own mussel. The collection of heavy second-hand tables, mismatched chairs, and faded antique sofas shouldn’t have worked. But somehow, added to the rough limestone block walls and the gleaming oak floors, it felt like home. Assuming that home featured a fabulous cook and a wine list to die for.

  “Tastes fine to me.” Docia swirled the mussel in the pale green dipping sauce. “Everything you do is good, Lee.”

  Lee sighed. “Pass it on, ladies. I love it here and so does Ken, but the appetite for tapas in Konigsburg is not exactly flourishing.”

  Docia shook her head. If her experience was typical, local reaction to new businesses, including Kent’s Hill Country Books, tended to be suspicious. “Believe me, if I knew how to appeal to Konigsburg appetites, I’d be doing it. Maybe you should just add a rib-eye and a couple of upscale burgers to the menu. If you build it, they will come.”

  “Worth a try. As long as I don’t have to do anything chicken fried.” Lee shuddered slightly and drifted away to greet the tourists at the next table.

  Docia glimpsed a couple across the room—she thought she recognized the woman from the Merchants Association. She gave her a tentative smile that faded as the woman turned away. Struck out again. “Maybe I should try a new mouthwash.”

  “You shouldn’t worry so much about Konigsburg people.” Janie shrugged. “It just takes a little while for them to adjust. Once they see you’re here to stay, they’ll come around.”

  “What more would I have to do to convince them, beyond spending an unholy amount of money redoing the bookstore?” Docia raised an eyebrow.

  “I don’t know—offer a couple of upscale burgers?” Janie grinned. “Just relax, Docia. It’ll happen.”

  “Right.” Docia poured a little more sauvignon blanc into her glass, then handed the bottle to Janie.

  “Gee, I almost forgot, Dub Tyler was looking for you.” Janie crunched another mussel, licking a drip of sauce from her lower lip. “Maybe he wants to be your new BFF.”

  “Oh for Pete’s sake.” Docia slumped back in her chair. “Doesn’t that man ever take no for an answer?”

  Janie paused in thought. “No, I don’t believe he ever has.”

  “What did he want?”

  “He wouldn’t say.” Janie reached for another mussel, dragging it through the dipping sauce. “Just said he’d raise it to eight percent, whatever that means.”

  Docia grimaced. “It means I’m going to lock the door the next time that old coot comes around.”

  “Oh, he’s not so bad. He got me the job with you, after all.”

  “How did he do that? I don’t think I ever talked to him before this year.”

  “He told me you were probably going to hire someone a few months after you opened. He figured you were doing too much business to handle it on your own.” Janie picked up a piece of foccacia to drag through the now-mussel-less dipping sauce. “Said I should think about moving up from waiting tables at the Hofbrau Haus, which was definitely true. He knows everything about everybody in town. Told me once he makes it his business to know. He can be a nice guy sometimes.”

  “He can also be a pain in the ass.” Docia picked up a piece of foccacia for herself.

  “That too.” Janie grinned at Ken Crowder as he moved around the tables, being a conscientious wine steward. Where Lee was small and dark, Ken was the all-American boy—red hair, freckles, and baby fat.

  “Hey, ladies!” He placed a couple of wine glasses on the table. “Can I interest you in a little sherry? Just got a new bottle of manzanilla—you’ll love it. Goes with the tapas.”

  “Thanks anyway. I’ve got to get home.” Docia tipped back the last of her wine, then stood as Lee arrived with another plate.

  “Don’t leave,” he exclaimed. “Not when I just brought baked cheese pita chips.”

  “I’ve got to.” Docia smiled at him. “If I eat any more, they’ll be rolling me down the street in a wheelbarrow.”

  “Now, that, I’d like to see.” Ken waggled his eyebrows while Lee shot him a fondly exasperated look.

  “Stay away from the nice straight lady,” he murmured. “She needs to find Mr. Right.”

  Mr. Right, aka Dr. Gorgeous, didn’t seem to be anywhere on Spicewood Avenue when Docia cut over from Main.

  Probably being entertained by half the female population at the Dew Drop. Docia frowned as she dug her keys from her pocket. What made her think he was Mr. Right anyway? She’d only seen him once, at a considerable distance, across a dimly lit barroom. Rodgers and Hammerstein this wasn’t.

  Once upon a time, Donnie Branscombe had also seemed to be Mr. Right—rising businessman, former college football star, popular with her parents, great smile, great ass. None of which kept him from being a first-class slime-bucket.

  Docia sighed. She really needed to stop thinking about Donnie. She hadn’t loved him. She ignored the slight clenching in her stomach. Okay, maybe she had loved him—a little bit. But he definitely hadn’t loved her. She’d found that out the hard way.

  She turned the corner to head down the street toward her apartment door, ignoring the faintly desolate feeling around her heart. Love sucked, even one-sided love. Particularly one-sided love.

  Docia unlocked the door and hiked up the steep flight of stairs leading to her apartment above the shop. Turning to throw the bolt again, she saw the first drop of blood.

  “Dammit, Nico,” she called. “It’s bad enough you have to attack birds in the backyard. Do you have to bring your victims home too?”

  The trail of drops led across the planked pine floor, narrowly missing the vintage Tabriz carpet she’d picked up in Houston.

  “Good thing, too, or I’d have your hide, you stupid cat.”

  Docia followed the droplets across the kitchen tile to the bathroom, Nico’s favorite haunt. “Don’t tell me you’re killing something in the bathtub, you lousy feline. I do not want to take a shower with feathers!” Docia pushed the door wider and stepped inside.

  Nico raised his head slightly as she entered, then dropped it to the floor again as if the exertion was more than he could handle.

  Docia stared at his small black body surrounded by a slowly growing dark red pool.

  “Oh God,” she whispered. “Sweet Jesus, Nico, what did you do to yourself?”

  Chapter Three

  Cal ambled back up the street from Margaret Hastings’ house, stretching the kinks out of his shoulders. Since he’d reached his full six-foot-five at age fifteen, he’d had sixteen years to get used to his size. While nobody would be signing him up to replace Fred Astaire, given his woeful lack of dancing ability, he considered himself a reasonably graceful man, not prone to tripping over antique furniture or stepping on babies. In fact, in most situations he seldom thou
ght about his size. It was simply a part of who he was.

  At Margaret Hastings’ house he felt like an oaf.

  Worse, he felt like a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk giant, cheerfully flattening villages whenever he put down his foot. He half-expected Mickey Mouse to start squeaking at him.

  Margaret’s bungalow wasn’t particularly small or crowded, but everything looked fragile. He worried about the creaking easy chair he sat in, the porcelain that covered most of the surfaces where he might have placed the iced tea Margaret gave him, the treacherous rag rugs that made fitting his feet between pieces of furniture even more harrowing.

  It didn’t help that Señor Pepe had placed himself between Cal’s boots as soon as he’d arrived and steadfastly refused to move, despite Margaret’s cajoling. Every time Cal looked down, Señor Pepe regarded him with those enormous brown eyes. Help me, oh please, help me. Cal had been afraid to put his foot in the wrong place for fear of crushing a paw or a tail, or—worst of all—an entire Chihuahua.

  The dinner Margaret had prepared was good, he’d give her that. Cal was a decent cook himself, and he appreciated people who knew how to fix corn without turning it into mush and who didn’t drench salads in bottled dressing.

  He was also a vegetarian. Had been since he was fourteen years old and visited his first slaughterhouse. Fortunately, he was able to explain this to Margaret before she put the steaks onto her outdoor gas grill.

  She was appalled. Not about the slaughterhouse.

  “Why, I never heard of such a thing,” Margaret snapped. “A big man like you. Surely you need red meat to keep going.” She’d stared up at him accusingly, one hand resting on a calico-covered hip.

  Clearly, he’d failed her. Not such a bad idea, of course.

  Cal had gritted his teeth, smiled and filled up on corn, green beans and salad, figuring he could always make himself some soup when he got home.

  At least by the end of the evening, Margaret was no longer looking at him with that faintly predatory gleam in her eyes. For her, vegetarians apparently rated somewhere slightly above people who said they’d been abducted by aliens.

  Particularly large male vegetarians.

  Cal didn’t care. He’d have been willing to be abducted by just about anybody if it meant he wouldn’t ever have to set foot inside that house again. He plucked Señor Pepe from between his boots one last time, thanked Margaret for her hospitality and headed out the door with a feeling of relief that almost sent him floating through the streets.

  He cut across the city park, ducking around the central gazebo to avoid a couple of tables where some teenagers were having a raucous picnic. Charcoal and beer scented the air.

  Should he stop by the clinic? Armando, the night attendant, was good at his job, but there was an elderly collie with kidney problems he felt like checking on. And besides, nothing was waiting for him at home except soup and Dos Equis. He sighed. Once he got on a little firmer financial footing, he was going to have to spring for cable.

  As he reached the rear clinic entrance, he heard a car door slam. Turning, he saw a Land Rover parked crookedly toward the front of the lot. A woman hurried toward him, hoisting a small animal carrier as she stumbled from the darkness into the lights.

  A moment passed before he recognized Venus, her fiery hair billowing wildly about tear-stained cheeks, her eyes wide with panic. Cal blinked and looked again. The front of her blouse was dappled with dark splotches.

  “Help me,” she called to him. “Please. My cat is hurt.”

  —

  Docia couldn’t let go of the carrier handle.

  Not that she didn’t want to. She found she simply couldn’t unfold her fingers and let it go.

  Dr. Gorgeous didn’t press her. He put one large hand at the small of her back and propelled her firmly through the rear door of the clinic. “Armando,” he called. “We need you over here.”

  A man stepped into the hall, staring at Docia. “Sure, Doc. What do you need me to do? Which room?”

  “Room two,” Gorgeous said, his voice quiet.

  Docia stared down at the carrier frozen in her hand. Nico. Nicodemus. Found digging through the garbage behind Allie Maldonado’s bakery. It had taken her a day to lure him out from behind the dumpster with canned tuna, and even then he wasn’t too pleased with her when she’d scooped him up and carried him home. She remembered tiny scratches from pin-sized claws. Her hands had been bright red for days. The two of them had spent a week reaching an understanding—she didn’t try to pick him up again and he finally agreed to come out from behind the refrigerator.

  Just a cat. He’s just a cat. He brought her lizards he’d hunted down, even a couple of thoroughly punctured snakes. He plunked himself in her lap every evening, nudging his head at her hand until she rubbed his ears. He was still small for a tom, but a hunter, incurably curious, self-confident, wily.

  Nico.

  Docia caught her breath on a sob, as Dr. Gorgeous finally pried the carrier out of her hand.

  “So what happened here?” he said, easily, as he unfastened the wire grid across the door. Inside the carrier, Nico managed a growl that was more like a moan.

  “I don’t know,” Docia whispered. “I came home and found him on the floor in the bathroom. He’s bleeding.”

  “We’ll help him,” the man he’d called Armando reassured her. “That’s what we do.”

  —

  Cal glanced at Armando. That’s what we do if everything goes right. Right now, he had no way of knowing if anything would.

  Warned by the growl, weak as it was, he reached carefully into the carrier, avoiding the half-hearted nip the little cat aimed his way, and lifted it out.

  Bad shape, very bad shape. Blood dappled the fur on the cat’s face, dark against dark, and along its flanks. There was blood around the mouth, as if it had eaten something sharp. Its eyes looked shocky, head lolling.

  Cal moved his fingers quickly, turning the head to check, then caught his breath. “He’s been shot.”

  “What?” Venus leaned across the table, eyes wide. “No! Who would shoot my cat?”

  “I don’t know, but someone did.” Cal touched the cat’s muzzle gently. “Entry wound here, came out the lower jaw. Small caliber, fortunately, probably a twenty-two.” He turned quickly to Armando and gave him some directions about antibiotics and intravenous lines, then told him to call another assistant into the clinic ASAP.

  Venus stood next to the examination table, gripping the edge so tightly her knuckles showed white.

  “No,” she said again. “No. Oh, Nico.”

  “Has he been in here before?” Cal said, quietly. “Has he had his shots?”

  “Yes. Dr. Rankin…” She paused as if she was trying to remember how to complete a sentence.

  “What’s the name?” Cal rubbed the cat gently behind its ears. Stay awake, buddy. “Yours and his.”

  “Docia Kent,” Venus murmured. “His name is Nicodemus.”

  “Be right back.” Armando left to get the chart.

  Cal looked closely at Venus-Docia to make sure she wasn’t going to pass out on him, attractive though that thought might have been under other circumstances.

  “Let me tell you what we’re going to do.” He used his omniscient voice in hopes of calming her down. The voice he usually used with kids when their pets had been hit by cars. “We’ll need some x-rays and probably surgery to get rid of any bullet fragments in his jaw. Then we’ll repair the damage to his mouth and sew him up. We’ll put him on antibiotics to take care of any possible infection. He’s lost blood, which is always dangerous with an animal, so we’ll also put in an intravenous line to rehydrate him. The next day or two will tell us whether we need to do anything else.”

  Docia took a deep breath. “When?” She cleared her throat. “When are you going to operate on him?”

  “As soon as I can get some help in here.” Cal stroked the cat lightly along its spine. “I need another assistant, but we don’t want to wait too lon
g.”

  “Can I stay here?” Her voice broke on “here”.

  Suddenly, she looked like a child, small and vulnerable for all of her six-foot height. Her dark green eyes were swimming in tears. Cal restrained himself from putting his arms around her. This would not be the best time to make a move, plus he didn’t want to let go of Nicodemus yet. The cat had finally calmed down, but it needed the contact.

  “You don’t need to do that.” Cal tried to sound as reassuring as Armando had. “It may take a while. I’ll let you know what happens, I promise.” He paused for a moment, trying to figure out how to say what he needed to say next. The hard part. “This is going to be pretty expensive. Probably close to a thousand. Do you have any insurance?”

  Docia bit her lip. “It’s okay. I’ll pay it, whatever it costs. Just do it.”

  “Right.” Cal nodded. “We’ll help him now, and we can work out payments later if we need to.”

  Docia looked down at the cat again, her eyes dazed. “Take care of him, please,” she whispered.

  “I will.” Cal put his hand on her shoulder. Her skin felt soft and warm through the thin cotton of her shirt. “I’ll do my best for him.”

  —

  After she’d finally driven back to her apartment, Docia found she couldn’t sleep. She wandered through the rooms, knowing she should go to bed but not being able to. The Regulator clock in the dining room said eleven, but it always ran fast.

  Shot. Someone had shot Nico.

  Why would anyone shoot her pet? Why would anyone want to hurt him? What was he doing, anyway?

  Docia leaned her forehead against the dining room doorframe, scrubbing a hand across her wet cheeks. She needed to talk to someone. Maybe she should call Janie or Allie or Lee, the few friends she’d made in Konigsburg.

  But she couldn’t seem to stop crying, and none of them had ever seen her cry. She was Docia Kent, businesswoman, cool head, Amazon. Maybe it was stupid to feel this way, but she couldn’t let them see her like this, all red-eyed and drippy. Bad enough Dr. Gorgeous had. He’d probably assume she was some kind of goofy cat lady.

 

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