Best in Show

Solitary mystery writer Julian Wilkes doesn’t want a pet, but his sister persuades him to visit Lingwood Animal Rescue, where he is immediately taken with a large ginger tabby cat. Before he can settle into the joys of cat ownership, however, he discovers something very unusual about his new companion.

Macavity Birch is cursed. By day he is a large tabby cat. At night he can be himself—a human male with ginger hair and oddly yellow eyes. He didn’t mean to end up in the animal rescue, but he never meant any harm when playing the prank that resulted in his curse, either. Happily, Julian adopts him. But while exploring his host’s home, he discovers the diary of a long-dead relative.

Unfortunately, not all of Mac’s ancestors are dead and buried. His great-great-great-grandmother is very much alive, and she’s a powerful witch who doesn’t take kindly to the sharing of family secrets. When Mac reveals himself to Julian in order to save him from bigger trouble, he achieves just the opposite, plunging Julian deeper into a magical mystery with him.

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Reviews

“Kelly Jensen has written an angst free, exciting and fun story that you’ll absolutely fall in love with! — Diverse Reader

“This was a totally fun read.” — Smitten with Reading

“…a sweet and wonderful book.” — Gay Book Reviews

Excerpt

Chapter One

RAIN HISSED against the pavement. Julian jumped over the puddle, hugging the curb, and dashed beneath the awning that sheltered the doors to Lingwood Animal Rescue. Alicia followed, wringing out the sodden ends of her dangly scarf-thing while muttering curses. His sister looked as though she’d been caught by a monsoon rather than a spring shower.

“Ready to go inside?” she asked.

Not really, because he didn’t want a dog, but he had yet to come up with a good way to put her off without inviting a conversation about why he hadn’t made any friends since returning to Lingwood two years earlier.

“Julian?” The rain had slicked all the highlights out of Alicia’s hair, rendering it the same mud brown as his. Long tendrils curled against her ruddy cheeks. “Can we go inside before we get soaked? More soaked?”

“I suppose.”

“You want to do this, right? We talked about it. You agreed to come—”

“Can we just go look at the dogs, please?” Julian yanked the door open and ushered his grumbling sister inside.

Lingwood Animal Rescue did not smell like wet dog. Julian swallowed his disappointment. The smell would have been a great objection to adopting the mutt Alicia seemed to think he needed. The shelter did look as he’d expected, though: slightly scruffy, with a coterie of mismatched chairs and a reception desk staffed by a harried-looking guy. Three of the walls displayed pictures of (according to an optimistically bright sign) Happy Families. Adopted pets and their lucky owners. Windows behind the reception desk provided a view of the (according to another happy sign) Guests’ Quarters.

After admiring the apostrophe placement, Julian wandered toward the windows. If he could pick a dog without having to go inside, he’d avoid the unpleasantness of having to reject multiple candidates in person.

The guy at reception seemed to be searching for a smile. He hadn’t found it by the time he started speaking. “Welcome to Lingwood Animal Rescue. I’m Peter, and I’d love to introduce you to your new family.” His smile caught up with him too late to mitigate the gentle irony in his tone.

“We’re here to adopt a dog,” Alicia said.

“Great!” Peter messed around with his desk, extracted a clipboard from beneath a pile of course books, and handed it across. “If you’ll just fill this out, we can get started.”

The form was ludicrously long. Six pages of personal information Julian preferred not to share. Granted, even giving out more than his first name usually made him uncomfortable, but every time he turned a fresh page, unexpected questions poked barbs into his delicate equilibrium. Did they really need to know he was single, and had been for over two years? Resentment built until he’d reached a gentle simmer. How exactly were six pages of paperwork and a dog he didn’t want supposed to equal him meeting the (next) love of his life and living happily ever after?

Right now he’d be happier at home with Madeleine Lingwood’s journal. It had arrived with the morning post, wrapped in brown paper and twine as if the seller understood certain objects must be treated with historical reverence. Researching the history of Lingwood’s founding family had become more than a hobby. Not quite an obsession yet, but it could be the foundation of a new project. A much-needed project. What would his readers think if he inserted a supernatural element into his next mystery? Or retold a true story based on the fabled Lingwood witches?

Given he hadn’t written anything for over two years, they’d likely be thrilled by a shopping list. That was, if he still had readers—

“Julian?”

“Hmm?” Blinking, Julian glanced over at Alicia, then down as he felt her pull the pen from his grasp.

Alicia plucked the clipboard off his lap and stood up to take it to Peter. Julian wandered back toward the big display windows. Peter flicked through the pages and glanced up to give him a cool once-over. Definitely not gay. His gaze didn’t linger anywhere. In fact, Peter might as well have looked through him. Julian got that a lot—which was why he didn’t go to all the “doesn’t this place sound cute, oh you should definitely check it out” bars his sister researched for him.

Apparently satisfied by Julian’s utter inoffensiveness, Peter stood, toyed with the keys dangling from his hip, and tipped his head toward the large square door to the left of his desk. “Let’s go meet your new family member!”

“Can I just look through the window first?”

Peter rattled his keys. “Sure. But remember, interacting with a dog is the best way to get a handle on his or her personality.”

No way was he adopting a female dog. Julian could too easily imagine the canine version of Alicia following him around his house, nosing him away from his desk chair or comfy chair, pantry, TV remote, Kindle, or Madeleine Lingwood’s diary. Anything that brought him joy. She’d stand by the door with a coiled leash dangling from her mouth, tilt her head, and make her eyes go all gooey. Guilt him into walking her through the neighborhood, or worse, to the park near the woods.

He didn’t want any sort of moth-eaten mongrel, either. The only thing worse than having his sister harangue him about his social life—or lack thereof—would be owning an ugly dog. Nope, he absolutely was not going to get suckered into adopting a three-legged, blind dog with no ears or tail. Nor would he be taking home any glossy showpiece of a thing. If he was going to do this—get a dog and walk it and try to meet people while out walking it—he needed one as unassuming as him. Brown-eyed, brown-haired, average height, a touch on the cuddly side, with a stubborn curve across his belly because he liked doughnuts (and danishes and muffins, but only the bite-sized kind) and the only sit-ups he ever did were getting out of bed in the morning.

There were no dogs on the other side of the window. He could hear them barking—a faint chorus of yaps and howls—but the cats lazing about on various towers and platforms, draped across carpeted tunnels and curled into the corners of litter trays, seemed unconcerned. They also appeared completely uninterested in the face at the window. Julian had never felt more invisible. Well, except to the cat staring at the window with wide, slightly panicked eyes.

Sitting at the top of the highest tower, the big ginger tabby wore an expression of quiet desperation. Its—his?—large amber eyes said: Get me out of here. A kitten clawed its way onto the platform beside the big cat. It clung precariously close to the edge for all of a second before the ginger tabby nudged it off with a distracted swipe of a rather large paw. The kitten tumbled from view. Julian thought to check that it didn’t lie broken on the floor, but he couldn’t shift his gaze from the ginger tabby. Forget the kitten, the large cat seemed to communicate. A darker patch of fur over one eye lifted slightly. Just take me home.

Julian touched a fingertip to the window. “I want that one.”

“That’s a cat,” Alicia said. “You can’t walk a cat.”

“I don’t want to go to the park. I’m not going to meet someone at the park. I’ll just trip over my dog’s leash and then lose him or her or it, and it’ll savage a child, and I’ll have to move again, and I really like it here.” As he spoke, he became more convinced a dog wasn’t what he needed. But a cat? “A cat is clean. They don’t lick everything. A cat can make me social. I’ll talk to it. To my cat.” Had Julian just imagined that nod? The big tabby couldn’t hear him, could it? He turned to Alicia. “I don’t want a dog. I want a cat. I want that cat.”

“But, Julian! It’s so….” She rolled words around in her mouth for a second. “Wouldn’t you rather get a puppy? You could train a puppy not to lick you. If you didn’t want to walk it, you could hire someone to do it for you. And there’re obedience classes, and you’re allowed to take dogs off the leash at the park over on West Fourth.”

“I don’t want a dog. I want a cat.” He didn’t quite understand where his conviction came from. Deep down, he didn’t want a pet at all. He’d rather not have responsibility for another life. Keeping his own in check was hard enough. But he’d figured he wouldn’t be leaving the shelter without a furry friend, and if he had to take someone home, it would be the big ginger tabby, the one still staring at him, not exactly pleading, merely suggesting they’d make a good pair. Making nonverbal promises not to shed, or chew, or mess.

He tapped the window again. “I want that cat.”