Good will to all, and peace on Earth. Even to those trying to kill you.
Adam Donahue lives in the perfect vacation place – Door County, Wisconsin. But his life isn’t perfect. His wife was killed by a drunk driver three years ago, and his twelve-year-old daughter has type one diabetes. Now his daughter claims a mythical pooka, in the shape of a giant cat only she can see, is living in her bedroom. It scares him enough to do something he hates – ask for help from his late wife’s best friend.
Lauren Finney’s insurance agent husband disappeared four and a half years ago. Good riddance. Her Irish wolfhound is better company than he ever was. And she misses her best friend more than the missing husband, though Adam – her best friend ‘s widower – makes her heart beat faster. Now it’s time to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband, before the prenup restrictions expire and he comes back to claim half her considerable assets.
As soon as she starts the proceedings, bad things happen. Very bad things.
Then Adam asks her help with his daughter, and good things happen. Very good things.
It might be their very best Christmas … or it might be their very last.
♦ ♦ ♦
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The best part of humans is their imagination. But only when they imagine the best.
Lauren rang the bell of the two-story house in the smallish subdivision of medium-sized homes about a mile from the bay. Stepping back, she dropped her hand onto the neck of the tall and dignified Irish wolfhound at her side. The love of her life, she’d often thought.
Falco grounded her. And she needed grounding today. This wasn’t how she had planned to spend her Saturday morning, but when Adam Donahue had called her last night, she hadn’t been able to turn down his plea for help.
The door opened, and she stared into Adam’s blue eyes. Her heart twitched. Her breath sucked in. Her body heated.
The same chemical reactions she’d felt when she was seventeen and her best friend had introduced Lauren to her new boyfriend. A good-looking boy with an unexpectedly low voice—a country-singing man’s voice—had smiled at her, not even glancing down her stick-like figure, then dismissing her, the way most guys did.
Though her heart had beat faster, she had narrowed her eyes and told him she’d hoped he was good enough for Noelle. He’d laughed and slung his arm around her shoulders and said he would do his best.
She’d wanted to melt into a hormonal puddle.
She hadn’t, of course. Skin and bones didn’t melt because of an unwanted sexual attraction. Even at seventeen, she was practical enough to know that. Instead, she’d clung to her common sense and willpower.
And here it was, eighteen years later, and she still looked at him and wanted to melt.
Once again, she overcame it, annoyed by her body’s reaction. No wonder she hadn’t insisted on stopping by after he’d told her that he and Tori needed to learn how to function without her help. Except for feeling bad about Tori, she’d been glad he’d said that. Pretending to be unaffected by him was exhausting.
“So what’s this thing about my beautiful, perfect goddaughter?” she asked, making her tone brisk.
He laughed but there was no humor in it. His blue gaze lowered to Falco. “Come in. Both of you. Tori’s at a friend’s house now and probably won’t be back until dinner.”
Lauren made a face. “Tori’s that age already?”
“She reached that age two years ago. Almost a teenager and she knows everything.” He backed up and she and Falco stepped in.
Once in, she looked behind him. As if still expecting Noelle to dance in and hug her, then say in her laughing voice, It’s about time you came. What took you?
In her mind, she replied, My giant crush on your husband.
Stupid. And she tried to avoid stupid things, though doing stupid things was part of the human condition, like tail wags were part of the canine condition and hair balls were part of being feline. Putting her hand on Falco’s neck again, she looked down on him, and he looked up at her. She immediately relaxed.
Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Falco in their life.
“Falco’s a great dog,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.
“The best.” She looked up slightly. At five nine, she was about four inches shorter than Adam. Close enough to see clearly the jawline stubble of his golden-brown hair.
He was a man’s man. The kind she’d never dated. She’d always attracted the business type. Men like Paul, who’d wanted a brainy woman with strong opinions at his side.
At least, that’s what he’d told her when he’d proposed, and she’d believed him.
Which proved that even smart woman could do stupid things. Especially when the smart woman was harboring a burning desire to have children, and, on paper, this man had seemed the right choice.
Never trust paper. Trust your heart.
She glanced around, her mouth dropping open. Noelle. No, it couldn’t be.
Oddly, the sentence had ended with a purr.
“Something wrong?” Adam asked.
“My imagination is going crazy.”
“Crazy happens sometimes.” He held out his hand. “I’ll take your coat.”
She peeled off her charcoal-gray, insulated trench coat that she deemed practical, stylish, and, most important for Door County residents, warm. As he hung it in the large coat closet off to the side, she stepped into the open floor plan that swept from the kitchen to the dining room and the living area. The walls were a creamy yellow, the couch a rich coral, and the two recliners the color of a milk chocolate bar.
It was all Noelle. Nothing had been changed. No wonder she had imagined hearing Noelle’s voice.
Lauren swallowed a lump in her throat, but that didn’t soothe the ache in her heart. She missed her laughing friend.
Steps sounded behind her on the wooden floor. Adam. She turned, wanting to smile but not able to dredge one up. Neither did he.
“Coffee?” he asked.
She nodded. Coffee and dark chocolate were her only vices. He led the way to the kitchen, where he poured coffee into two cups. He handed one to her. “Still black and bitter?”
“Black and tasteful,” she said.
Laughter sparked in his eyes, though he just grinned, and she grinned back at him. Two old friends. Nothing more.
“Are you ready to talk?” she asked.
“Are you ready to sit down?”
She raised her eyebrows. “So it’s going to be a sit-down talk.”
“‘Fraid so,” he said, but he didn’t look afraid. He just looked sad, his grin gone along with the sparkle in his eyes.
Sadness seeped into her, too. She glanced at the tall stools at the extended kitchen counter and then turned toward the table. The tabletop was a thick plank that used to be a church door that Adam had reclaimed, and he’d used the legs from an old sewing machine to hold it up.
He’d gotten these items while renovating homes during the winter. Noelle had loved the table. She’d been so proud of Adam. And there was a window on the left with the sunlight pouring in. Though the yards weren’t big, bushes gave the house a semblance of privacy.
Lauren took a seat near the end. Holding the coffee mug, she looked outside, and she could almost believe she saw the ghost of her beautiful friend, waving at her.
“You okay?” Adam sat across the table from her.
She lifted the coffee to her mouth and took a large gulp. Setting the mug on the table, she said, “I’m fine. Coffee is the cure.” She gazed into his blue eyes. “So, what is it?”
He sat across from her, his big hands cupped around a Disney princess mug. “You’re not going to believe it.”
“You’ve always been cynical. What do you know about pookas?”
“That’s what I thought.” His forehead furrowed. “Pookas are spirits that come into a house in a large animal form.”
She leaned over the table. “Are you okay?”
“I have to be okay for Tori’s sake. I overheard her talking in her bedroom. I went in and no one was there. She insisted there was a big cat in the room. A pooka. As big as she is. She was talking to it, and it talked back to her, though I couldn’t hear it.” He held up his hand to stop her from saying anything. “I know it sounds crazy, but she wasn’t kidding me or scamming me. She believed it.” He glared at her, as if daring her to doubt him.
“Go on,” she said.
“I looked it up online. That’s how I found out more about pookas. She said that the cat spoke to her.” He shook his head. “She’s not lying. And she’s not crazy.”
Lauren took a deep breath. “If you say she’s not lying, I believe you.”
“And the crazy part?”
“Not crazy.” Two vertical lines formed between her eyebrows. “She does have a good imagination.”
A breath huffed out of him. “That’s some imagination. If she’d said a dog or a horse, I’d go with that. She’s always wanted a dog, and when she was a kid, she was horse crazy. She’s never asked for a cat. Not once. If I brought home a kitten, sure, she’d probably love it. But only because it’s there.”
“So that leaves two things. She’s imagining a pooka in her bedroom. Or there really is a pooka in her bedroom.” She frowned. “She’s twelve. At this age, girls aren’t thinking about fictional creatures. They’re thinking about boys,”
He groaned, sounding like a rusty door.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding back a hiccuping laugh. “Not that I believe Tori’s thinking about boys, but some girls do.”
He closed his eyes shut, his mouth clenching, and she winced.
“Back to the cat,” she said. “What did it say?”
His eyes opened, and he stared at her. “You’re really asking that?”
She shrugged. “That’s why you called me, right? Even if there’s no cat, no creature, and it’s all in her mind, the dialogue she heard—real or imagined—must be important.”
“Only you would think that. So you think the pooka is possible?”
Her mouth opened … and then shut. No, of course she didn’t think it was possible. She believed in what she could see and what she could touch.
But something stopped her from saying it. “Tori’s always been creative.”
“She takes after her mom that way. Noelle was the family artist.”
Lauren laughed, the ache back in her chest and tears not far away. “Noelle used to say that you were the artist.” She tapped her knuckles on the table. “Like this. She loved this table that you made. She was always proud of you.”
His eyes remained sad. “So what do you think I should do?”
She took another large gulp of her coffee, then pushed back the chair and stood. Behind her, she could hear the scrape of dog nails as Falco pushed up to his four feet. “I think we should say hi to the pooka. See if it says hi back.”
“Tori said it only talks to her.”
“But you said it’s a cat, right?” She stooped to hug Falco’s shoulders, and Falco pressed his head against the side of hers. Then she looked up at the tall, handsome man staring down at them. “Pooka or no, a cat is a cat, and if there’s really an invisible cat up there”—she frowned, because this would undoubtedly have a bad ending—“Falco will sniff it out.”
Seconds later, as she headed up the stairs, she heard a rhyme in her head: Fee fi fo fat, I smell the blood of a very big cat.