"Stupid cat!" The customer dragged his son hastily out of the shop, forcing Julian to flush himself against the door frame and seek out my embarrassed face behind the desk in friendly bewilderment.
"Did I miss something?" The fair, straight-backed youth said with a gleaming smile.
"Just Contessa frightening the customers again," I replied, surveying the mess left from the incident, "I don't know what I'm going to do about her, that little boy thought she was going to kill him."
"A bookshop isn't ideal for a cat."
"She loves the shop, Julian," I picked up some books from the floor with the handsome youth's help, "I locked her in the back room last week with her cushions and litter box but she escaped. I don't know how. She was gone for an entire afternoon. I wouldn't worry except that she's getting on a bit and she's a house cat. She feels safe on her shelf with Jane Austen."
"She does have an unhealthy obsession with those three volumes of Emma, but if it's costing you business- I know you're not in the best financial situation at the moment-"
"Don't remind me, Julian, it's all my mother talks about. She seems to forget sometimes that I was hurt too when dad ran off with some school girl and left us to run his shop that was riddled with debt. Now things are going from bad to worse, even our regular customers, like you, rarely buy anything."
"Am I still just a customer, Steph?" Julian frowned, skimming through a pile of books stacked on the desk ready for shelving, "I thought we might be more than that now, after all I come in every day and you can't get rid of me."
"Until mum comes down and makes you feel uncomfortable."
"Where is she today?" He urgently examined the shop for her charismatic presence, "At her other job?"
"Not today, she has some business with our lawyer. She hasn't told me what and I don't want to know. It'll all be miserable. Everything is miserable except that stupid cat, no matter what happens she always grins."
"She's heard your insult," Julian nodded to the floor as the blue coated puss strutted up to the desk and sat proudly before it like an impatient customer.
"Yes, you, you little fool. Why can't you stop grinning and behave yourself?"
The innocent grin chiselled to the puss' face made us burst into laughter as the bell tinkered with the opening of the door and Contessa bolted back to her shelf to guard her precious books.
"Good morning, sir," I showed my teeth politely to the older gentleman who wore a thick white moustache and a long brown coat with a hat to match. He would have looked younger had he not been carrying a walking stick.
"Classics section?" He smugly lifted his chin, opting to ignore the signs on the wall beside him.
"Just on your left, sir," I half- glared, half- smiled.
Once the gentleman showed his back I began snickering with Julian at the toffee nosed customer, "Hope he doesn't frighten Contessa," I said, "Shall I fetch her away?"
"Have a little faith," Julian rested his hand upon mine, "it might be all right."
No sooner had he spoken than a hiss came from around the corner followed by a booming curse and the recognisable sound of wood striking wood.
"Contessa!" I sprinted over to the sound of the riot, Julian fast on my heels. There was a strangled meowing and the cat, still grinning, emerged from a pile of fallen books and climbed into the sanctuary of my arms. The frazzled old man flew out just a second after, walking stick in the air. I held my pet close and Julian took a step forward to intervene if necessary.
"That blasted mangy cat went for me!" The old man spat.
"You frightened her, waving that stick at her, you brute!"
"Brute? One phone call, girl, and I could have that animal put down!"
"Don't speak to the lady in that tone," Julian pressed himself up to the large torso of the older man.
"I speak in whatever manner I choose, boy. I only wanted to look at that collection of books then that thing began hissing and clawing at me!"
"Those books are labelled 'display only' for a reason!" I peeped over my defender's shoulder to respond fearlessly into the man's eyes.
"Then maybe you should get rid of them or, better yet, the cat!"
"The cat goes nowhere, and if she stays then so do the books!"
"That may not be an option once I go to the police."
"What?" I held Contessa tighter.
"Look at the state of my hand," Now he presented it there was a thin blood trail leaking across it. The damage could not be doubted so I remained in silence while the man made his threats. "I am willing to make a settlement now. Give me those books and I won't get the police involved."
"You wouldn't dare."
"Would I not? I've heard about this shop, that animal; it's dangerous. Won't be long before someone gets seriously hurt. I'm doing you a favour. The books or risk losing your cat, your books, and your precious shop."
"Get out," I replied.
"She asked you to leave. Please do so... sir." Julian ground his teeth, and the man, who gave the appearance of such a gentleman, left, but his shadow still hung in the air.
"He can't do anything can he?" I panted nervously into Julian's back.
"I wouldn't have thought so, but I wouldn't put anything past a man like that."
"You would have given him the books?"
"I don't know. Contessa attacked him, he may have a claim-"
"You're on his side then?"
"No, but they're just old books, I don't see why-"
"Just go, Julian."
I deserved to have the door slammed in my face, the bell ringing out to silence while I just stood there hoping that he might return. I dropped Contessa to the floor and she indifferently pattered to the shelves and scratched her back on the spine of the second volume of Emma.
I ran to the door when the bell went a second time, hoping Julian had come back, but my shoulders slumped to see my mum on the doormat and I had to explain to her what had just happened.
"That bloody cat!" Mum screeched against Contessa's snoring, "I've had enough bad news today already- your dad's only gone and decided he wants to sell the shop!"
"So he can buy a love shack for that infant wife of his! So you'll understand that the last thing I need to worry about is that cat!" She furiously pointed towards the Classics section.
"I'm sorry, love," She took my hands in hers and took a real breath that took her tone down towards calm. "I shouldn't have shouted, I'm just so angry at your father." The sadness in her eyes was so penetrating, so forward that it hit me like wave and I knew that my stubbornness was foolish and selfish.
"If the man comes back I'll give him the books." I reluctantly surrendered before finding myself gratefully wrapped in a maternal embrace.
"That would mean a lot to me, sweetheart."
"Keeping the shop is more important. Keeping our home is important."
"You're a good girl, and that boy's good looking." She added with a cheeky smile.
"What? He'll come back. He likes you."
We slept in after staying up until the early hours trying to find a way to stop my dad evicting us, but it only meant coming up with a serious amount of money, fast, to pay off the outstanding debts. I doubted his love for me every day but this just made it certain. I opened the shop before breakfast, hoping for some early custom when the old man pushed himself into my doorway.
"I assume you've come for the books." I scanned the shop to ensure Contessa was on her shelf so as not to cause anymore trouble for me with this man.
"I have, unless you want me to take legal action." The man rested his hands on his walking stick, intentionally placing the one Contessa swiped on top, reminding me of his claim.
I walked straight-backed over to the Classics section where I picked up Contessa who meowed discontentedly like she knew what I was doing.
"You can take them. Just leave us be."
"Very sensible." He scooped up the volumes in his large hands. I felt his eyes judging me as Contessa writhed in my grasp at the sight of her precious paper cushions being carried off by some cold stranger. "It was a pleasure doing business with you." The man victoriously tipped his hat, able to afford the civility that tasted bitter to me. Contessa's claws peeled back the skin of my arm but I couldn't let her down until the door had shut, otherwise she would have chased after those books. Maybe she didn't love me either.
I left her mewing softly by the door while I arranged some books where there was left a space. It was perfect for those I spotted had fallen down the back of the shelf. Lost treasures that might be worth something to someone. I looked them over and blew the dust off their covers, coughing through the silvery cloud and screwed my features up as I struggled with a thought that had come belatedly; why were those dusty red books so valuable to the old man?
"Steph?" Julian's velvet voice harmonised with the jingle of the bell and soothed my restless spirit, but I didn't look up from the books as I put them temporarily on the shelf. "Did the old man come back?"
"Yes, he did, and you'll pleased to know the books are gone." I stood up and slapped my thighs in surrender.
"What? No!" He barked. He wasn't playing some cruel joke for his eyes were filled with despair and he took my arms in his hands. "Dear god, why did you get rid of them?"
"No, no, you are not allowed to say that after how beleaguering you were."
"That's an impressive word-"
"Those books are worth thousands, Steph!"
"What?" I went limp in his arms, "What are you talking about?"
"I wondered why that man was so interested in them. I've seen those books enough times so I did some research: they're first editions. You could sell the them to a collector for ten thousand pounds!"
"That would save the shop." I mumbled, putting my hand through my hair, practically pulling it out of my scalp hoping I might wake up from this dream. "So that man knew? He knew and made some absurd claim so he could take them?"
"That seems to be the case. He could be a collector or dealer, either way he's cheated you. He might have startled Tessa on purpose or something, he said he knew about her."
I held my head in my hands and pressed my palms into my eyes. I felt powerless but, of course, I was.
"Where is Tessa?" Julian finally said.
I silently looked around, but when the troublesome cat was nowhere to be found I began to call for her and make the sounds a person likes to make when calling animals but still she did not come.
"You don't think that when I came in she took the opportunity to escape?" Julian interrupted my repeated tongue clicking.
"But why would she want to-" the breath halted in my open mouth, "those damn books!"
We both ran to the door and our eyes searched the streets, our voices filled the air begging for Contessa to return home. It was in vain.
"She'll come back," Julian's arm came around my shoulder, but I gripped my heart in fear, for Contessa was a house cat, and she was gone.
Julian went to look for her until dark, even Mum was supportive though she had enough on her mind as the bank refused loans to help keep Dad at bay. I didn't want to worry her further by telling her about the books that I myself couldn't bear to think about, along with how much that man had taken from us for his own greed. I didn't sleep well.
My days were lonelier without Contessa, and less eventful, though the customers were far friendlier. However the regulars exhibited some curiosity as to what had become of the pet that had been as familiar as any of the authors decorating the shelves, even those who previously resented her presence felt that the shop had lost something of itself. It pleased me really to know she was not universally hated. I awoke at the usual time every day, unusually tired, and went down the wooden stairs into the dark, silent shop which should have been full of the welcome echoes of Contessa's snores. Each night I had to think of her wandering alone down the unfamiliar streets gave me more cause to weep.
The fourth day. I knew it would be a good day because the sun woke me instead of my alarm. A girlish hope perhaps, but so much had seen fit to disappoint me so there was nothing I could do but go on. My family weren't ones for self-pity, except maybe my cowardly father, but I was my mother's daughter. I changed as usual, breakfasted as usual, and put out Contessa's food as usual hoping today she might be there to eat it because today would be a good day.
I opened the door to flip the 'closed' sign and, to my astonishment, before me on the doorstep was a sealed box, but what caused my surprise was what was sitting on top of the box, curled up and purring softly.
"Contessa!" I took the beloved creature in my arms, kissing her fur which stank of the town's rot. "You ridiculous, beautiful darling, don't ever do that to me again." I cuddled her some more against her protest, as all she wanted was to return back to the box.
There was a label on it which read; 'Contessa'. I frowned and carried the box inside. It was prettily dressed with a ribbon and when I untied it the lid easily came off, but at the contents my mind was blank of understanding, and I stood for several minutes staring at three dusty red leather volumes of Emma.
"Where did these come from, Tessa, you clever girl?" I laughed in complete bewilderment until I saw the feline's small figure trot out of the front door that I had carelessly left open.
I unhesitatingly took on the chase as Contessa bounced into the distance. The streets were empty so I could keep the cat in my sights with ease, determination keeping my breath steady and legs moving for the ten minutes I must have followed her until she came to the entrance of a large publishing house. Unobliging to the social laws of humans she went straight inside and bolted up the stairs. The security guard and lady at the reception desk were quick to shout after me when they realised the cat was mine; "Oi! You get that animal out of here!"
"Working on it!" I cried back. My knees began to give out at the top of the stairs but, to my relief, as my eyes came level with the third floor, I saw Contessa had stopped outside an office door and was resisting the shooing of the haughty secretary posted outside.
I took the final steps on the silver carpet, slowly approaching the door, wondering who was hidden inside. Could it be the old man? My saviour? Or just a stranger that Contessa fancied leading me to?
"Excuse me, Miss, is this animal yours?"
"Can you tell me whose office this is please?" I ignored the secretary's question.
"This is the office of our Vice President of Publishing, Julian Brett."
"Yes. Now I must ask you to get that animal out of here."
"Could you please tell Mr Brett that I'm here?" I smoothed myself down, keeping the joy and confusion out of my voice, "He'll want to see me, my name's Stephanie Grant." I addressed the woman's ice cold features, and with a dark cynicism she switched on her intercom. When Julian answered her my heart skipped a beat as I knew his voice, and when the door opened there he stood, looking as gloriously charming as he always did, but somehow my adoration became more obvious to me when I was guided into his lavish office overlooking the town.
"What are you doing here?" He said uneasily, failing to conceal the golden nameplate on his desk.
"You're the Vice President of Andall Publishing House?"
"Honorary thing, my father's President. I never told you because I didn't want it to affect our relationship- which I have grown quite fond of."
Quite unable to take in anything he said, let alone respond to it, I simply asked, "You brought the books back?"
"I was looking out of my window here and I saw the old man passing by, I ran down and we came to an agreement whereby he gave me the books and I returned them to where they rightly belong; with you and Contessa."
"An agreement? He knew what those books were worth, you must have given him-"
"Nothing I couldn't afford or wouldn't gladly give again."
"You know why."
I turned crimson because I did, or hope I did. "You shouldn't have done it," I weakly shook my head, "I don't know whether to slap you or kiss you," I continued, but my words couldn't hold their firmness and, with a laugh, I threw my arms around Julian's neck and wiped my tearful cheek on his collar, "Oh Julian, you good, sweet man, how can I ever thank you?"
"How about dinner tonight?" I relaxed down into his arms, he caught my tears with his thumb and stroked my hair with his elegant fingers. His eyes were so warm and full of the feeling I had held for a long time. I didn't know why it had taken so long for me to see it, not just in him, but in myself.
"It's about time," I whispered, leaning in to finally taste his lips and-
"Hang on. How did you know it was me who returned the books?"
I rolled my eyes back towards the door to give the answer that we declared in unison, "That damn cat!"