Cover & Excerpt Reveal
by Barbara Bretton
Christmas used to be the happiest time of the year in the big house on the hill. But this year when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day, it will all be over. Can Sebastian, a wily Maine Coon cat, find a way to bring his people back home or will this holiday be their last?
Previously published as "Home for the Holidays" in Penguin Berkley's anthology "The Christmas Cat."
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Free Spirit Press
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As a rule, Sebastian endured Christmas with the good grace for which the best cats were known. He never indulged in merrymaking. His self-defined role as elder statesman precluded such a loss of dignity. Instead he held himself aloof and watched with great indulgence as his humans did the strangest things.
Once a year, around the first snowstorm, they opened the front doors wide and dragged in a big pine tree from outside. The same people who scolded him when he came in with muddy paws ignored bugs and dirt and sap and set the tree right smack in the middle of the living room carpet. They hung round, shiny objects from the branches and strung twinkling lights from top to bottom. Then, when that was all done, they placed boxes tied up with bows underneath the lowest branches.
Everyone who came to visit gathered around the tree to sing songs and drink something called eggnog and to give each other presents that weren't half as much fun as catnip or a ball of yarn. All things considered, it was a most puzzling time of the year.
At Christmastime a cat had to learn how to cope or he'd find himself with a Santa Claus hat on his head and a ribbon around his neck, posing for some stupid holiday card picture that would embarrass him for the rest of his days. The dog and the parrot were perfectly happy to make fools of themselves and wear all manner of ridiculous outfits to make their humans laugh, but not Sebastian. The first person who tried to make him wear snow boots or a bow around his neck would find himself picking kitty litter out of his teeth for a year.
Sebastian did not suffer fools gladly. Christmas was not his favorite time of year. He preferred Thanksgiving, thank you very much, with that big juicy roasted bird on the table and lots of leftovers. When Christmas got too loud and confusing, he retreated to his hiding place in the Girl's room where a cat in his golden years could sleep in peace and quiet until things got back to normal again.
This year, however, something was wrong. There was no tree, no beribboned packages, no friends and relatives gathered around singing songs to torment the ears of innocent cats. The Boy and Girl moped around in their rooms and not even talk of Santa Claus could make them smile. And what worried Sebastian most was that their parents weren't smiling either.
When it all began, the Man slept downstairs on the sofa while she had the big bed all to herself. Sebastian, with the sensibilities of a diplomat, had tried to divide his attentions between the two of them but his twelve-year-old legs weren't what they used to be. The stairs took their toll on his rickety knees and made him wheeze like a bulldog, so most of the time he slept on the landing so he could be near them both.
Finally the time came when he didn't have to do that any longer, because the Man packed his bags and moved to something called a hotel.
The dog refused to believe anything was wrong. The parrot thought Sebastian was making a mountain out of a molehill, but Sebastian knew in his ancient bones that change was in the wind. He had been around since the beginning and he knew how it used to be when they were happy. There had been so much laughter in the little cottage that he couldn't hear himself purr. Now he couldn't remember the last time he'd even seen them smile.
He found himself dreaming about the little cottage where he'd first lived with them and how happy they'd been. It was as if the cottage itself were somehow calling him back home. The Woman used to sing while she cooked dinner and sometimes the Man came into the kitchen and drew her into his arms and they danced around the floor. Sebastian would even get into the act. He'd wind his way between their ankles until, laughing, they would bend down and stroke his fur just the way he liked it. Ah, those were the days....
He'd been young then and fast. A better mouser never lived than Sebastian in his prime. He'd bring his treasures home proudly and place them on the front porch but she never seemed to appreciate them the way Sebastian thought she should. As far as Sebastian was concerned, it didn't get much better than dead mouse.
Sebastian didn't do much mousing anymore and his birding days were a thing of the past. He hadn't gone exploring in longer than he could remember, content instead to stay close to home in case he was needed. Sometimes he thought he caught the mourning doves laughing at him as he lay on the back steps and sunned himself. He pretended he didn't notice them waddling by, but he did. It was a sad day when a proud cat like Sebastian couldn't catch a mourning dove but time marched on and, like it or not, there wasn't anything he could do about it.
Not long ago a sign appeared in the front yard and every day strange people marched through the house. Sebastian refused to acknowledge their presence as they peeked in closets and peered under the beds. He didn't know exactly what was going on but he knew enough to understand his life was about to change.
He hadn't seen his people together in a long time. The Man hadn't been around much since the sign appeared. The other day Sebastian had heard his voice through the answering machine and he'd winced as the dog danced about with delight. Poor Charlie just didn't understand the difference between a machine and the real thing. For a minute Sebastian had wished he didn't either. He wanted to believe that his people would be together again and things would be the way they used to, but he was starting to suspect it never would.
When the big long truck pulled into the driveway that morning, Sebastian knew it was all over. He sat in the foyer and watched with growing dismay as the televisions vanished into the truck, along with the piano and dishes and even the paintings on the walls.
A snowy boot nudged his flank. "Move, fatso."
Sebastian aimed a malevolent look in the human’s direction but he didn't budge an inch. It was his house. Let old Snow Boots move.
"Hey, tubs." The brown boot nudged a little harder. "I got a twelve foot couch to move. Get your furry ass out of my way."
Sebastian considered turning the human's pants into confetti but thought better of it. Instead he leaped onto the sofa with a surprising display of agility and curled up in the corner as if he hadn't a care in the world. He was having trouble catching his breath but he refused to let on.
"Hey, lady!" the human bellowed. "Do something about this cat, will you?"
"Sebastian!" She appeared in the doorway. "Scat! Stay out of the moving man's way."
Sebastian arched his back and hissed. Scat? Since when did she tell him to scat? She'd never embarrassed him in front of strangers before and he didn't like it one bit.
"Bad cat!" Her voice shook as if she'd been crying. "Don't you ever do anything right?"
Her words cut him to the quick. He jumped down from the sofa, landing hard on his paws. Pain shot up his legs and along his back. He was getting too old for gymnastics. He waited for her to come see if he'd hurt himself but she turned away as if she'd forgotten he was even there. That hurt most of all.
"You gonna stand there all day, fatso?" the human asked, aiming that boot in Sebastian's direction one more time. "You heard what the lady said. Now scat!"
Sebastian couldn't help himself. There was only so much a cat could take before he defended his honor. With one graceful swing of his paw, he turned the moron's right pants leg into a windsock and then he marched out the front door, tail held high. Maybe next time the human would think twice before insulting an innocent feline who was just minding his own business.
He strutted out onto the porch and surveyed his domain.
Snow was everywhere he looked: on the porch, the driveway, all over the yard. Sebastian's whiskers quivered with distaste. He hated snow. It was cold and wet and reminded him of baths and other indignities. Maybe if he looked pathetic enough, she would come out and rescue him. An apology would be nice but he wouldn't insist.
He waited patiently, watching as tables and chairs and beds and tables disappeared into the big truck parked in the driveway. It seemed a very strange thing to do and he was pondering the mystery when he suddenly remembered the last time something just like this had happened to him.
The Boy and Girl had been babies then, too little to do anything but sleep and eat and cry. Sebastian would have suggested they leave the babies behind but his people had a strange fondness for the little roundheads, a fondness Sebastian learned to share only after they were out of diapers. In his opinion, litter boxes made a great deal more sense.
He remembered that summer as if it were yesterday. All of their furniture had disappeared into a truck that time, too, only back then there hadn't been quite as much of it, and most of what they had boasted claw marks.
"Don't look so sad, Sebastian," the Woman had said, chucking him under the chin. "You'll love the new house!"
"Wait until you see the backyard, old boy," the Man had said with a laugh. "Slower birds and plumper mice and lots of shady places to take a nap."
Was that the last time they'd all been happy? The Man worked harder than ever and was home less and less. She worked harder too, sitting alone at the computer late at night while the Boy and Girl slept. Sebastian never saw them curled up side by side on the sofa or dancing in the kitchen or heard them laughing together in their room late at night.
The moving men bellowed something behind him. Sebastian scampered down the icy stairs and darted under the porch, just in time to avoid being flattened by work boots and the big couch from the den. Snow brushed against his belly and made him shiver. He hated the cold almost as much as he hated the three-cans-for-a-dollar cat food his people sometimes foisted on him. At his age he should be curled up in front of a roaring fireplace with a platter of sliced veal and gravy, claiming his rightful place in the family.
Wasn't it bad enough that the Man didn't live with them anymore or that sometimes she cried herself to sleep when she thought no one could hear her? Now they wouldn't even have a home and everyone knew you couldn't be a family if you didn't have a place where you could be together.
The cottage on Burnt Sugar Hill.
For days Sebastian had felt the pull of the old place until the need to see that old house again was almost irresistible. And now he finally thought he knew why: the secret to being a family was hidden within its four walls and somehow Sebastian had to lead his people back home before it was too late.
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