Mariah swore under her breath as she traipsed through the gloomy winter’s night, her footsteps crunching over the snow-covered earth. She bent low, ruffled the icy branches of a juniper bush and muttered once more.
No, never again would she let her sister -- or anyone, for that matter -- take advantage of her good nature. No more favors. No more “Oh, please, Mariah!” No more going out of her way to help other people and getting nothing in return. She had a problem, all right, just as Phil had told her.
Most of all, no more taking care of Lover Boy.
No matter how busy her sister was, no matter what the circumstances behind it, Mariah was making one hard and fast rule here and now: Never again would she let that huge old tomcat into her home. Not even for a minute.
Not that he ever stayed there. That was the problem. Lover Boy had been aptly named, and the minute Mariah’s back was turned, the big striped tabby always managed to find a way out to prowl around, looking for love.
She poked her head over the hedge that lined the walkway from one apartment building to the next. That cat had to be somewhere in the complex. But where?
“When I find you --“ she warned, then stopped short when she heard Phil’s heavy steps coming up behind her. She glanced back at him. “Did you see him anywhere?”
“Forget that stupid cat, will you!” He blew out a frosty breath and stamped his feet. “It’s freezing out here. I don’t know why you let Jessica bring that mangy critter over here.”
“He’s not mangy.” Mariah shook her head and clapped her gloved hands over her ears. She didn’t want to hear any more of Phil’s arguments. “And yes, it’s freezing out here, so that’s all the more reason why I have to find him. If anything happens to Lover Boy, my sister will never get over it. You know how attached she is to that cat.”
“So why isn’t she taking care of him? Why did she dump him off with you again?” Phil muttered a few unintelligible words and turned away. He headed straight for the entrance to Mariah’s building.
“You’re not going to help?”
“You want that cat, you find it.” He reached the doorway, stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. “I’m not waiting all night, Mariah. If you’re not back upstairs in ten minutes, I’m leaving.”
“Phil, don’t be so childish.” Mariah’s heart thumped against her chest. How many times must they repeat the same tiresome argument? She braced herself, knowing his next words before he even spoke them.
“I’m damned tired of this. If it’s not your sister and her cat, it’s Mrs. Wormsley and her plants. Or you’re looking after somebody’s kids because the babysitter didn’t show, or you’ve got to go in and work a few extra hours because somebody’s sick. What about me?” He jabbed his thick thumb toward himself. “Did it ever occur to you that I’d like a little of your time? No,” he rushed on, giving his head a shake. “You’re too busy helping everybody else out.” Phil finally sucked in a breath. “Damn it, Mariah. You’ve got to stop being so nice to people. You’ve got to learn how to say ‘no’ once in a while.” He jerked the entry door open and darted inside.
Mariah stared at the door for a moment, then resumed her frantic search. Phil was serious this time. She had to find Lover Boy -- fast. Otherwise Phil Stewart would be walking out of her life, and most likely he wouldn’t return.
“I’m only trying to help,” she said aloud.
Of course, Phil had a point. People did take advantage of her. She really should learn to be more assertive; she needed to stand up for herself more often.
But was it really wrong when she truly enjoyed helping others? Funny, but it never seemed to be a problem...before.
Before Phil came waltzing into her life and began demanding more and more of her time. Before Phil began counting how many favors she did for her friends and family. Before Phil started pointing out how little she received from others.
She didn’t ask anything in return. She didn’t expect people to pay her when she volunteered to help. Happiness wasn’t measured in dollars and cents, and life wasn’t a ledger where every hour had to be balanced by tangible gain.
In the long run, things did balance out. Kindness brought kindness in return. A helping hand brought smiles, friendships, and gratitude. Caring about others always brought happiness.
Mariah heard a shuffling noise and whirled around. “Oh, Mrs. Wormsley, good evening.” She smiled at the spindly, blue-haired older lady. “I didn’t hear you come out.”
“No, I don’t suppose you did. You were engaged in a rather lively discussion with that gentleman friend of yours.” She sighed. “So, Lover Boy on the loose again?” Without waiting for an answer, she began peeking through the hedges, too. “Here, Love! Come on, kitty.”
“I’m sorry if Phil disturbed you. He’s a little unhappy with me.”
Mrs. Wormsley drew herself up -- which wasn’t saying much. The top of her head barely reached Mariah’s chin. She tilted her head back. “Well, if he’s going to make such a fuss, maybe you should go inside.”
“But... Lover Boy! I have to find him.”
The woman shook her head. “Don’t worry about Lover Boy. Cats are clever creatures, my dear. They can look after themselves quite well, even in the snow and cold. I don’t doubt that he’s found himself a warm and cozy spot, and he’s probably curled up, having a lovely little cat-nap. Trust me, he’ll come home on his own. Now, you run along. Go spend a little time with your friend.” She smiled. Or maybe it was more of a grimace.
“Yes.” Mariah nodded. “I do need to spend a little time with Phil.”
She slipped inside and climbed slowly up the stairs to the second floor. With each step, her determination grew stronger. Phil was right: she needed to take charge. She needed to speak up when someone took advantage of her.
And right now, that someone was Phil Stewart.
“It’s over,” she told him as soon as she’d stepped inside. She didn’t even bother to close the door behind her. She gestured toward it. “You’re a selfish man, Phil. You never think of anyone but yourself. I don’t want to become like you.”
He opened his mouth, but Mariah shook her head. She pointed toward the door again.
“All right, fine. If that’s what you want. But you’ll regret it,” he told her, wagging a finger toward her. “You’ll be calling me and begging me to come back, mark my words.”
She slammed the door behind him. It felt good. Very good.
Letting out a long, satisfied breath, Mariah strolled to the window. She peered out into the night, watched the glittering snowflakes swirling through the air, and wondered again where Lover Boy might be. She hoped he had, indeed, found a warm and cozy spot.
A loud knock sounded, startling Mariah from her thoughts.
Damn you, Phil! Just go away!
If she hadn’t been so angry, she would have ignored him, but obviously he hadn’t taken her seriously. The self-centered, obnoxious man truly believed all he had to do was knock and she’d fall right into his arms again.
Mariah stomped across her living room and flung the door open.
She blinked in surprise. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Lover Boy!” She squealed with delight to see the old tomcat, snug and safe -- in the arms of a tall, handsome dark-haired young man.
The man laughed. “Well, thanks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a welcome quite like that before.” His broad grin revealed neat, even white teeth. He held the cat out toward her. “I think you've been looking for this fellow."
With her cheeks flaming, Mariah nodded. “Lover Boy,” she repeated, her voice low. “That’s him. The cat.”
“Oh, I see.” The tall young man grinned again as she took the tom into her arms. “I’m Matt Coughlin, by the way. I just moved in last week.” He pointed across the hall. “Haven’t had a chance yet to meet too many people. But I did make Lover Boy’s acquaintance earlier.” He reached out and scratched the cat’s furry head. Lover Boy purred. “Somehow, he got up on my balcony. I didn’t know where he came from, but, well, I’m a sucker for cats. I hated to think of him being out in the cold, so I let him come in." His dark brown eyes reminded Mariah of lumps of melting chocolate. "Earlier, I saw Mrs. Wormsley when I went out to the mailbox. She said you were looking for a cat, asked if I'd seen one prowling around. I hope I didn't cause you to worry too much. If I'd known where he belonged, I would have brought him back sooner."
“He’s been at your apartment?” Mariah stroked the cat’s fur, too. When her fingers brushed against Matt’s, a tingle shot through her.
“Yeah, curled up by the fireplace."
“Warm and cozy,” said Matt.
Mariah’s apartment suddenly felt warm and cozy, too.
“Would you care for a cup of cocoa,” she asked.
“I think I’d like that.”
She bent down and put Lover Boy on the floor. “Now, stay here, will you? It’s cold outside. This isn’t a night to be out prowling around, looking for love.”
No, indeed. It was a perfect night for staying inside and curling up in front of the fireplace. Mariah and Matt exchanged glances. They both smiled.
It might even turn out to be a perfect night for finding love.
“I’ll get that cocoa,” Mariah said.
"Can I help?" asked Matt.
Lover Boy rubbed against her legs, looked up at her, looked at Matt, then trotted across the room and jumped upon the hearth. He closed his eyes, and a soft purr filled the air.
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