“Excuse me. Do you have any Tomkins Hairball Remedy?”
I glanced up from the assortment of catnip balls I’d been sorting and smiled at the short, gray-haired woman who stood uncertainly at my counter. She reminded me of my late aunt-iron gray hair done into a severe bun at the nape of her neck, a smooth, unlined face, and sharp blue eyes that peered at me over the rims of her tortoiseshell glasses. I smiled at her. “I’m sorry, we’re not open for business yet.”
Her penciled brows drew together, and the corners of her lips drooped down. “Oh? I saw the lights on, and the door wasn’t locked.”
“My bad. I forgot to lock it after me, I’m afraid.” I pushed a stray curl out of my eyes. “I am planning on reopening the store, but I only came into town a few days ago. As for your question, I really don’t know. I was just taking an inventory, trying to determine what stock I need to order.”
“Oh.” She adjusted her glasses on her nose and peered at me more closely. “You’re Tillie’s niece.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” I wiped my hand on the sides of my jeans and extended it to her. “Crishell McMillan.”
“Grace Poole.” She took my hand, shook it briefly, then released it and leaned against the counter. Her head cocked to one side. “You’re the actress.” Once again, not a question. Although the way Grace Poole said it, it sounded more like a death sentence.
“Right again,” I said, “although I guess you could say I’m an ex-actress. I’ve retired.”
Grace Poole stared at me. “Retired? But you’re so young! You can’t be more than twenty-five!”
“You’re very kind. I’m thirty-eight.” I amended. Unlike most actresses, I’d never been shy about revealing my real age. “Still young, true, only trust me, not by Hollywood standards.”
Up until two months ago I was better known as Shell Marlowe, one of the stars of a popular cable tv show, Spy Anyone. My character, Hermione DuVal had been a large part of my life for ten years, yet that role seemed a lifetime ago. I’d gotten word the series had been cancelled two days before receiving a telegram from my mother informing me of my Aunt Tillie’s passing. Out of the two events, my aunt’s passing was the more traumatic to me. When I’d found out she’d left me not only her Victorian mansion in Fox Hollow, Connecticut with all its contents but also a healthy assortment of stocks and bonds and the Purr N Bark Pet Store, I’d felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d grown sick and tired of the phony Hollywood scene. I jumped at the chance to make a fresh start three thousand miles away.
Besides, I’d always harbored a secret desire to be a veterinarian. Managing a pet store seemed like the next best thing.
The woman looked so forlorn that I held up one finger. “Just a minute, Ms. Poole. I thought I saw something here before…” I ran my finger along the boxes that graced the shelf in back of me, grabbed one and held it out to her. “It’s not the Tomkins brand, but I have used this on my own cat. It’s pretty good.”
Grace Poole’s eyes brightened as she snatched the box from my outstretched hand. “Jordan’s. I’ve heard of it. This’ll do.” She started to reach inside her purse. “How much?”
I waved my hand. “Consider it a free sample. And I do hope you’ll come back and visit once we’re officially open for business.”
“Oh, you can bet on that.” Grace stuffed the box into the voluminous floral tote slung over one arm. “We’ve been hoping and praying that the business would continue. Fox Hollow needs their pet store. The others on the highway are so…impersonal.” She paused. “Not to mention a pain in the you know where to get to. Do you have an opening date in mind?”
“There’s a lot of straightening up I need to do first, but I’m hoping by the end of the month.”
“Wonderful. I’ll tell my friends. They were all worried too.” She turned, paused and looked at me over her shoulder. “Nice to meet you, Crishell.”
“Call me Shell.”
Grace tossed me a wave and bustled out the door. I uncrossed my legs and stood up with a groan. “Boy, this not going to the gym every day sure takes a toll on your muscles,” I observed.
I glanced down and saw a sleek brown form wriggle out from underneath the counter. My coffee-colored Seal Point Siamese had been a birthday gift from my mother two years ago after I’d hinted at adopting a shelter cat. “No daughter of mine is going to have a mutt animal,” she’d hissed as she’d pressed the basket into my arms. Actually, the name on the cat’s papers is Her Royal Highness Tao T’Sung, but there was no way I was going to call a cat Your Royal Highness, so instead I’d started searching the Internet for suitable names. The problem was solved the next morning when I found her curled up in my liquor cabinet, her paws wrapped around a bottle of Kahlua, my favorite liqueur. Problem solved.
I reached down and gave Kahlua a scratch behind her ear. She jumped up on the counter and licked my hand with her rough tongue. I picked her up and cuddled her against my chest. “What do you think, Kahlua?” I whispered. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I can just visualize the finished product. We’ll make Aunt Tillie proud yet.”
Kahlua’s head butted my chin. “Merow.”
I chuckled. “I’m glad you agree.”
My pants pocket started to vibrate. I set Kahlua back on the floor and fished out my I-Phone. I took a look at the Caller ID and stifled a groan. I was so tempted to let it go to voicemail, but he’d only keep calling. This was his fiftieth call in two days. I squared my shoulders and hit the answer button. “Yes, Max?”
“Oh my God. Did I finally get you and not a recording? I thought you’d have come to your senses by now. What’s gotten into you? Why have you thrown away a promising career to tend to the needs of cats and dogs? Why? Tell me why!”
My agent Max Molenaro’s nasally whine reminded me just why I’d been avoiding taking his calls. I’d started to forget just how pitchy his voice could get when he didn’t get his way. “I guess it all depends on your definition of a promising career,” I said.
“Your aunt didn’t say you had to run that business personally, did she?” Max snapped. “I’m sure you could find someone capable to run it, and you could fly in once or twice a month to check up on things. I know you, Shell. You’re used to bustle and bright lights. Small town living isn’t for you.”
I exhaled a long breath. “This has nothing to do with small town living, as you put it, does it Max? This is about the Spy Anyone cable reboot, isn’t it?”
The silence stretched on for so long that I thought we’d somehow gotten disconnected (which wouldn’t have bothered me in the least, by the way) and then Max spoke up. “The cable reboot could be your door, Shell, not that pet store. Aw, Shell, you weren’t cut out to sell dog food and kitty litter. You were born to act.”
I stifled a laugh. “I think you have me confused with my mother.” My mother, Clarissa McMillan, was a classically trained actress who’d enjoyed a long career on the Broadway stage. She’d always had something to say about my career, and had never approved of my role choices. She’d always had something derogatory to say about the cable show, calling it ‘a cheap James Bond ripoff’. I had no doubt she’d be even less thrilled about my selling dog food and kitty litter, which was one reason why I hadn’t told her about my decision yet. “No doubt she would agree with you, but my answer is still the same. No.”
A few more seconds of silence and then Max blurted out, “Tell me the truth, Shell. Is Gary the reason you don’t want to do the new series? Because if it is, we…we can do something about him.”
I switched the phone to my other ear. “Do something about him? That sounds ominous.” Not that I hadn’t been tempted to do away with Gary many times myself. He could be a sweetheart, but he could also be a royal pain in the you know where. “Relax. My decision has nothing to do with Gary, Max. I just want to do something different with my life. I want to be my own boss for a change.”
“I can understand that. But does it have to be running a pet store?”
“The people of Fox Hollow have always been big animal lovers. They cherish their pets, and my aunt knew that. Max, you should see this place! It’s got every type of pet need one could ever imagine!” As I spoke, my eyes roamed over the store’s vast shelves, stocked to the brim with toys for cats and dogs, beds, litter pails, and the like. My aunt hadn’t catered solely to cats or dogs, either: There was a section for live parakeets and parrots, some fish tanks, and cages where hamsters, guinea pigs and even rats had been kept. They were all empty right now, but I was hopeful to have them refilled within the next few weeks. I’d also planned to contact several local shelters to see if we could arrange to hold ‘Adopt A Pet’ Saturdays once a month. “You know I’ve always loved animals. Besides becoming a veterinarian, this is the next best thing.” I snapped my fingers. “Which reminds me-I have to put an ad in the paper for an assistant. Know anyone who’d be interested in giving dogs a bath and clipping cat’s claws?”
“Not off the top of my head,” he said dryly. He hesitated briefly and then said, “Would this life altering decision of yours have anything to do with Patrick?”
My throat constricted and my heart skipped a beat at the mention of my former director slash fiancée. I swallowed over the lump and replied, “I won’t deny that putting distance between me and Patrick held a certain amount of appeal, but it wasn’t the only deciding factor.”
I could hear him snicker, although he tried to hide it. “I’ll bet you my next commission you’ll be on the next plane to LA in a month.”
I laughed. “I hate to take your money, Max. You work so hard for it.”
“So your mind is made up? There’s nothing I can do to change it?”
Another long sigh. “Well, then, I wish you luck, Shell, although…I’ve got to warn you, though – Gary probably won’t be thrilled by this news.”
My nose wrinkled. I could well imagine my former co-star’s reaction, which was one of the reasons I hadn’t told him I was moving either. “Gary will be fine. He’s like a cat. He always lands on his feet. Trust me, he’ll be thrilled. Now he can convince the new producers to hire a young chippie as his new sidekick.”
“It’s not that easy.” He hesitated and then said, “I might as well tell you the truth. You were the one the producers really wanted. Without you, I doubt there’ll be much interest in the new series. But that’s not your problem. Take care, Shell – oh, wait! Are guest roles totally off the table?”
After I hung up from Max I flopped down in the worn chair behind the register and leaned back, my hands laced behind my neck. Max’s parting words bothered me more than I cared to admit, and a twinge of guilt arrowed through me at the thought I might possibly cost Gary this job. Kahlua hopped up on my lap and swatted my chin with her paw. “You’re right, Kahlua,” I said. “Max might have been exaggerating, hoping to play on my sympathy. Gary’s a big boy and a good actor. He’ll push through no matter what the role.”
It was high time I thought about what was best for me for a change. As Aunt Tillie used to say, “If you don’t put yourself first, it’s a sure bet no one else will.” Well, it was high time I did that. I’d put everyone else’s needs above mine, far too often, most recently with disastrous results. I glanced at my hand – the empty third finger of my left hand, specifically – and a small sigh escaped my lips.
Everything happens for a reason.
A mental picture of Patrick rose in my mind’s eye, and I resolutely pushed it away. I’d been so certain he was the one. I’d spend hours in my trailer between scenes, fantasizing about the perfect life we’d have together and then, in one afternoon, it had all come crashing down. I’d flung my four-carat diamond ring at Patrick and the script girl he was in bed with, stormed out of the apartment and never looked back. A month later the show was cancelled, and three weeks after that I was on a plane to Fox Hollow. And now here I sat, sorting through boxes of catnip balls and doggie chew toys. Go figure.
The bell above the shop door tinkled, jostling me out of my reverie and reminding me once again I’d forgotten to lock the door. “I’m sorry, we’re not open for business yet,” I began, and then stopped short. Three people stood grouped in the doorway, two women and a man. One woman was short and stout. She had flame colored hair (think Lucille Ball, only REDDER) teased up off her head and anchored with what had to be at least a pound of hairspray. She wore an aqua and orange flowered caftan a size too small which served to accentuate her generous frame instead of hiding it. Her age was hard to judge but I placed her as approximately ten years older than myself, late forties to mid-fifties. The man was around the same age. He had a brown beard shot with streaks of grey, and kind eyes behind large, tortoise framed glasses. His jeans were neat and pressed, and held up by multicolored suspenders with a thread of glitter running through them.
The other girl was a good bit younger than either of her companions. I placed her a bit younger than myself, late twenties, early thirties tops. She had long, luxurious dark brown, almost black hair that flowed across her shoulders like a waterfall. I couldn’t see her eyes behind the massive Jackie O sunglasses she wore, but I was betting they were the same color as the hair. Her slender frame was accentuated by the skintight Capri jeans and tank top she wore. Toenails painted a bright blue peeped out from flip-flops of the same color. The girl carried a massive basket wrapped in yellow cellophane.
“Welcome to Fox Hollow,” they chorused, almost as if they’d either rehearsed it or else done it a million times before. It was hard to tell which. “We know you’re not open yet,” the redhead added. “But we saw the light on, so we figured maybe this was as good a time as any.” She held out her hand. “Rita Sakowski. I run the coffee shop up the block. Sweet Perks.”
“Oh, yes.” I gave an enthusiastic nod. “I did notice your shop. I’m rather a coffee nut. Sorry I haven’t had time to stop in yet, but I’ve been busy.”
“Oh, we know,” Rita gushed. “You’re Crishell Marlowe, the actress, Tillie’s niece. I’ve always loved that name. It’s so unusual. How did you think of it, or did some Hollywood bigwig do it for you?”
“Nope. If anyone’s to blame, it’s my parents.” I took the hand she shoved in front of me and let her pump it up and down. “They couldn’t decide between Shelley and Christine, so they invented Crishell. It’s kind of a mouthful for most people, though, so I go by my nickname. Shell.” I paused. “I should also mention I’m using my real last name now. McMillan.”
“Oh.” Rita dropped my hand abruptly. Her smile faltered just a bit and then it was back in place. “Well, I have to tell you everyone in Fox Hollow is just thrilled you’ve decided to keep Tillie’s legacy alive.”
I smiled back. “It’s my pleasure.” I waved a hand around the store. “I’ve been taking inventory. I wanted to open it next week, but I doubt I’ll be ready much before the end of the month. As you can see, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I have to restock a lot of items, and, of course, get some pets in here.”
Rita nodded. “Of course. Tillie did let things slack off a bit those last few months. I guess we should have been quicker to take that as a sign something was wrong. Your aunt never slacked off. Never.”
We were all silent for a few seconds, and then the man reached out and took my hand. “Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Shell McMillan. I’m Ron Webb. Webb’s Florists. My store is right next door to Rita’s.” He grinned. “Sure comes in handy during the slow hours when I need a cup of java or a fresh baked scone to pick me up.”
The brunette reached up to brush a strand of hair from her glasses. I noted the blue polish on the fingernails had added glitter. “And I’m Olivia Niven,” she said. “My claim to fame is running the dance academy on Main Street.” She wrinkled her nose at me and looked pointedly at my feet. “Do you dance, Shell?”
“Not very well. I turned down Dancing on Air because I have two left feet. My co-star, Gary Presser was on last season though. He came in second.”
“I know. I voted for him. He got robbed.” Olivia looked me up and down. “I bet I could make a passable dancer out of you,” she laughed and flicked her hand dismissively. “If I can train the Boswell twins to win last year’s annual competition, I can train anyone.”
“That’s true,” Rita’s red hair swayed to and fro as she nodded. “Talk about left feet, those girls had ‘em, and now, well, you should see them foxtrot.”
Olivia shot me a mischievous grin. “Come by the studio. My girls will be thrilled to meet you. The boys even more so. They were all big Spy Anyone fans.” She shifted the basket to her other hand and whipped off the sunglasses, and I saw her eyes were indeed the same color as the hair, maybe even a shade darker. “So,” she reached out to tap the top of the basket. “We just came over to give you this small token to welcome you to the shop community, and to offer any help you might need.”
Rita gave Olivia a small nudge, and the younger woman held out the basket to me. Through the cellophane I saw cookies, cakes, an assortment of gourmet teas and coffees, and a small plant.
“Some treats Rita, Ron and I put together,” Olivia said, with a sidelong glance at her companions. “To be honest, it was mostly Rita. Enjoy.”
“Thanks.” I had to grip the basket hard. It was really loaded down. “This was very nice of you.”
Rita waved her hand carelessly. “Oh, don’t mention it sweetie. We all loved your aunt, and this store is one of the most popular in Fox Hollow. When the tour buses come through, they always make a stop here. Nothing people like better than to take a little souvenier home to their pets. Oh, and you might want to give Kathleen Power a call. She knits the most darling doggie and kitty sweaters and booties. Your aunt used to sell them for her all the time, on consignment.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.” I smiled. “I hope I can live up to my aunt’s reputation.”
“I’m sure you will, dear.” Rita hesitated and then added, “I have to say, we were all surprised when we heard that you would be moving here and taking over the store.”
“Oh, don’t be so coy, Rita,” Olivia cut in. She turned to me. “We were shocked. After all, Fox Hollow’s no Hollywood.”
I nodded. “Thank God for that.”
Now that her arms were free, Olivia crossed them over her well endowed chest. “So, you’re really planning on staying and making a go of this? Or is this just a pit stop before your next series?”
Apparently Olivia wasn’t the type to pull any punches. Personally I found that refreshing after living in the phony Hollywood community for so long. “I assure you, I’m here to stay. I’ve retired from show business.”
Olivia’s perfectly arched eyebrow skyrocketed. “Retired? Really? I would think that would be hard. Isn’t it in your blood? I mean, your mother’s an actress too, right?”
I shot her a wry smile. “If that’s true, then I want a transfusion.”
“I was sad to hear about your series,” Rita cut in. “I always watched Spy Anyone. It was one of my favorite shows.”
“Mine too,” said Ron and Olivia nodded. “I watched it for your co-star,” Olivia said with a shrug. “I hope he’s not retiring from show business too.”
“Gary? I doubt it. He’s too much of a ham.”
Olivia leaned one arm on the counter. “Frankly, I’m disappointed. I thought your moving here had something to do with that breakup of yours, you know with that director—OW!” She rubbed at her side and glared at Rita.
“No sense in rehashing things I’m sure Shell must be sick of hearing, right Shell?” Rita said smoothly.
“Oh, for pity’s sakes, the woman lived in Hollywood, the gossip capital of the world. She’s used to it, aren’t you Shell?” Olivia demanded.
“Now now Olivia, don’t put her on the spot,” chided Ron. “She might not want to talk about it.”
“Oh, don’t be silly Ron. Shell’s a public figure. Her life’s been an open book for years,” snapped Olivia. “Besides, I’m curious about this retirement. What made you decide to give up the bright lights to follow in your aunt’s footsteps?”
“Those bright lights aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” I said. “When you’re on a hit show, your life isn’t your own. As for taking over Aunt Tillie’s business, well, I’ve always loved animals. I think if I hadn’t been pushed into going into acting, I probably would have gone for a career in veterinary medicine. And I feel I owe it to my aunt. She was always there for me when I was growing up. One of my biggest regrets is not having had much contact with her before she passed. No one in our family even knew she was ill.”
Rita made a sympathetic noise. “Don’t beat yourself up over that, dear. No one did. Tillie could be quite close-mouthed when it came to certain things, and her health was one of them. I doubted she’d have ever told you anything anyway. Tillie never liked folks worrying or fussing over her.”
“But she did enjoy fussing over others,” Olivia put in. “Take her roommate, for example.”
My head swiveled in Olivia’s direction and I let out an astonished gasp. “Roommate? My aunt’s lawyer didn’t mention anything about her having a roommate.”
“No?” Olivia shrugged. “Maybe it slipped his mind.”
“Kind of an important detail to slip up on, don’t you think?” I placed my hands on my hips. “Are you sure about this? I mean, I find it a bit hard to believe my aunt would take in a boarder. She didn’t need the money, and as you’ve already pointed out, she valued her privacy.”
Olivia chuckled. “That’s because you never saw the two of them together. He doted on your aunt, and she was a sucker for him.”
He. A male boarder. A sudden thought occurred to me. “Were my aunt and this boarder involved?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Olivia nodded. “There was nothing Tillie wouldn’t do for him. He had her wrapped around his little finger. Or maybe I should say paw.”
Eyes twinkling, Olivia reached toward the basket I’d set on the counter, undid the cellophane and crinkled some of it between her fingers. “That should bring him running, see! There he is now.”
I turned and caught a blur of white out of the corner of my eye. The next instant, the blur streaked past me and with one graceful leap landed on all fours right in the center of the counter.
“Oh my God,” I cried. “What is that?”
“Merow,” said the blur. “Owww.”
The others started to laugh. “That,” choked out Olivia. “Is the store mascot and your aunt’s roomie.
Shell, meet Purrday.”