Family Affair


Chapter One

"I've got the backbone of a worm," Lacey Lancaster muttered as she let herself into her apartment. She tossed her mail onto an end table and glared at Cleo. "I didn't say a word to Mr. Sullivan, not a single word."

Cleo, her Abyssinian cat, affectionately wove her golden-brown body between Lacey's ankles. Her long tail coiled around Lacey's calf like a feather boa, soft, sleek, and soothing.

"I had the perfect opportunity to ask for a raise and did I do it?" Lacey demanded, kicking her feet so that her shoes sailed in opposite directions. "Oh, no, I let it pass by. And do you know why?"

Cleo apparently didn't. Lacey took off her bright green vinyl raincoat, opened the closet door, and shoved it inside. "Because I'm a coward, that's why."

Walking into the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator and stuck her head inside, rooting out some sorry-looking leftovers, two boxes of take-out Chinese, and the tulip bulbs she'd meant to plant in her balcony flower box last October.

"I'm starved." She opened the vegetable bin and took out a limp stalk of celery. "You know my problem, don't you?"

Cleo meowed and wove her way between Lacey's ankles once more.

"Oh, sorry. You're probably hungry too." Lacey reached inside the cupboard and pulled out a can of gourmet cat food. To her surprise, Cleo didn't show the least bit of interest. Instead, she raised her tail and stuck her rear end in the air.

"What's going on with you? Trust me, Cleo, this isn't the time to go all weird on me. I need to talk." Taking her celery stick with her, she moved into the living room and fell onto the love seat.

"I work and slave and put in all kinds of overtime - without pay, I might add - and for what? Mr. Sullivan doesn't appreciate me. Yet it's my decorating ideas he uses. The worst part is, he doesn't even bother to give me the credit." She chomped off the end of the celery and chewed with a vengeance. The stalk teetered from the attack and then slowly curved downward.

Lacey studied the celery. "This might as well be my backbone," she muttered. Unable to sit still any longer, she paced her compact living room. "I haven't had a raise in the whole year I've worked for him, and in that time I've taken on much more responsibility and completed projects Mr. Sullivan couldn't or wouldn't do. Good grief, if it weren't for me, Mr. Sullivan wouldn't know what was going on in his own business." By this time she was breathless and irate. "I do more work than he does, and he's the owner, for heaven's sake!"

Clearly Cleo agreed, because she let out a low, wailing moan. Lacey had never owned a cat before, but after a devastating divorce she'd needed someone. Or some thing. The thing had turned out to be Cleo.

She'd first spotted Cleo in a pet-shop window, looking forlorn. Cleo's brother and sister had been sold two weeks earlier, and Cleo was all alone. Abandoned, the half-grown kitten gazed, dejected and miserable, onto the world that passed her by.

Lacey had been suffering from the same emotions herself, and once they met the two had become fast friends. No fool, the pet-store owner knew a sale when he saw one. He'd made some fast soft-shoe moves to convince Lacey what a good investment Cleo would be. If she bred her and sold off the litter, within a year or so, he claimed, her original investment would be returned to her.

Lacey hadn't been so keen on the breeding aspect of the deal, but it had sounded like something she should try. She wanted companionship, and after her disastrous marriage she was through with men. A cat wouldn't lie or cheat or cause hurt. Peter had done all three with bone-cutting accuracy.

Good ol' Peter, Lacey mused. She should be grateful for all the lessons he'd taught her. Perhaps someday she would be able to look back on her marriage without the crushing pain she felt now. He'd vowed to love and cherish her but then calmly announced one Sunday afternoon, without warning, that he was leaving her for someone else.

Someone else was a tall blonde with baby blue eyes and a voluptuous figure. Lacey had sized up the competition, decided she didn't stand a chance, and signed the divorce papers. Oh, there'd been some haggling, but she'd left that to her attorney and stayed out of it as much as possible.