I opened the envelope and read the enclosed invitation. After the import of it had sunk in, I balled up the stiff card and threw it across the kitchen. I muttered a curse to myself.
Diesel, my Maine Coon cat, saw this action as an invitation to play. He darted after the wadded-up card and started batting it around the floor. I watched, my mind busy trying to come up with polite ways to say not on your life to the issuer of the invitation.
"What's Mr. Cat playing with?"
The voice of Azalea Berry, my housekeeper, broke into my thoughts. I looked up to see her, hands on hips, staring at the large cat playing soccer across the room.
"An invitation," I said.
"Who's inviting the cat somewhere?"
Azalea's deadpan expression at first had me thinking she was serious. Then I saw the twinkle in her eyes.
"I wish it was for Diesel." I couldn't quite keep the sour note out of my voice. "It's addressed to me, unfortunately."
Spatula in hand, Azalea turned back to the stove. "Eggs'll be ready in a minute. Who's it from?"
"The new neighbor," I replied. "The one who bought old Mr. Hardy's house."
"Oh, her." Azalea's tone indicated that she didn't care for Geraldine Albritton any more than I did. "What kind of invite is it?"
"She's having a Christmas party. According to the invitation, it's a Neighborhood Meet-and-Greet. And it's next week."
"She's not giving people much notice. What if they all made other plans for that night?" Azalea set a plate of scrambled eggs, country ham, and biscuits in front of me. Diesel saw that I now had food, and he left off batting his new toy around. He came up to my chair, placed a large paw atop my thigh, and emitted a sad chirp. Starvation was imminent.
"More than likely she's thinking the curiosity value will bring them. I don't know how many neighbors have dropped by to welcome her to the neighborhood so far, but you can bet there will be more than a few people who haven't who'll be wanting to see the inside of that house."
Azalea snorted. "People are always wanting to find out about their neighbors."
"True." I put my attention to the food on my plate and let my mind contemplate the looming situation. Azalea refilled my coffee cup before she left the kitchen for the laundry room.
I believed I knew my neighbors well enough to predict that most of them would not react kindly to the overtures of a pushy newcomer. Based on my limited acquaintance with Geraldine-call me Gerry-Albritton, I felt pretty sure that, unless she toned herself down, many of my neighbors wouldn't want to have much to do with her. Southerners have always prided themselves on their hospitality, but by the same turn, they weren't always ready to welcome strangers to the inner circle. Gerry Albritton might not find people in this neighborhood as ready to embrace her as she probably expected.
Though I desperately wanted to forget every second of our first meeting, I couldn't suppress it. The memory of it hung around, refusing to be banished. I recalled it as I ate my breakfast.
Gerry Albritton had moved in a month earlier, and a week later, I decided to do the neighborly thing. Armed with a small basket of baked goods-some provided by Azalea and others from Helen Louise Brady's French bistro-I walked across the street that morning to introduce myself. I told Diesel we were going to meet the new neighbor, and he chirped happily in response. He was always ready for fresh conquests. He soaked up admiration like a hairy, chirping sponge.
I rang the doorbell. Perhaps twenty seconds later the door opened, and I beheld Ms. Albritton for the first time. Until then I'd caught only brief glimpses of her out the front windows as she went in and out of the house. Up close she was shorter than I had reckoned, probably only about five four and petite with it. I felt far too large as I loomed over her.
Dressed as if she was heading out to a formal dinner party-high heels, pearls, diamond rings, and the ever-fashionable little black dress-Ms. Albritton had an air of sophistication about her. She smiled widely at the sight of me, and I smiled back a bit uncertainly. I wasn't sure whether she actually noticed Diesel, as she appeared to be so focused on me.
Before I could introduce myself, Ms. Albritton spoke. "You have to be Charlie Harris, the handsome widower of Oak Drive." She batted her eyelashes at me, tilted her head, and offered a coy smile. "Come right on in, I've been just about dying to meet you. You're even better-looking close up." She laughed, a light, tinkling sound. "I've only been able to peek at you from a distance before now. I just know we're going to be friends, so you just call me Gerry and I'll call you Charlie, okay?"
Rattled by her flirtatious manner and thoroughly taken aback, I stared at her and made no attempt to respond. She didn't appear to notice, though. Her gaze shifted down from my face, over my chest and farther south. I resisted the urge to squirm.
Then she seemed to realize that Diesel was with me.
"And this is the famous Diesel. Oh, you are such a handsome boy. Like father like kitty, and both of you so tall and strong-looking."
I glanced down at the cat. Diesel stared at Ms. Albritton as if mesmerized. Thus far he hadn't made a sound, unusual for him. He looked up at me and offered what sounded like an interrogatory trill. He hadn't met anyone quite like her before, not with that coquettish manner and tone, at least.
I found the dregs of my composure and responded to Ms. Albritton after Diesel's appeal. "I am Charlie Harris, Ms. Albritton, and yes, this is Diesel." I thrust the basket of pastries toward her. "We wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood."
She accepted the basket with another coy smile. Her hand brushed mine. "Aren't you two the sweetest things?" Her Mississippi drawl drew the words out a few extra beats. "Y'all come on in. I'm afraid the house is still a wreck, but I know you'll overlook it. A poor woman on her own moving into this wonderful neighborhood. I can't tell you how thrilled I am this house came up for sale. All the time I was growing up here I wanted to live in this neighborhood, and when I moved back recently I couldn't believe a house on this street was up for sale." She turned and walked away.
At that point in our brief acquaintance, the last thing I wanted to do was enter this house, but I couldn't be rude and simply walk away-or rather, run away, if I had my druthers. I didn't feel up to fending off a lonesome widow this morning. I intended to tell Ms. Albritton that Diesel and I couldn't stay, that we were expected somewhere even though it was my one day off during the week and I had nothing planned.
I followed her into the living room and discovered to my distaste that the furniture and decor consisted of what I privately called industrial horror. For a moment I thought I had wandered onto the set of a futuristic movie. Everything I saw was either stark white or deep black, except for dashes of color from photographs placed around the room and on the walls. There was not a book in sight-to me, always the sign of a person with whom I probably had little in common. Most of the rooms in my house had shelves full of books.
Gerry Albritton motioned me toward a leather sofa with tubular black legs. I took one corner, and Diesel huddled by my legs. I could tell that he found the atmosphere of the room as sterile and off-putting as I did. Our hostess set the gift basket on the coffee table, the top of which appeared to be made of some kind of white synthetic substance. Then, to my alarm, she seated herself so close to me that her knee brushed against mine.
My deeply ingrained manners precluded my being rude to her. But I decided to make an exception. I got to my feet quickly, before Gerry Albritton had a chance to speak.
"I do apologize," I said, trying hard to sound sincere, "but I just this second remembered that my daughter is coming by any minute to drop off my grandson. It's my day to babysit. I'm sure you'll excuse me."
"Now that's just too bad." My hostess sounded put out with me and wasn't bothering to hide it. "I was really hoping for a chance to get to know you better." Then she smiled, and her tone became friendly again. "But of course children and grandchildren come first." She rose from the sofa. "It must be so nice to have family like that. I'm all on my own." Her expression had suddenly turned forlorn.
"That's too bad," I murmured. Diesel and I followed her to the front door.
"You'll have to come back when you can stay longer." Gerry Albritton laid a hand on my arm and squeezed it. "I know we're going to be good friends."
"How kind," I said. "We hope you'll be happy here." Diesel and I scooted out the door and headed home. I was never so glad to get away from someone in my life.
I suppressed another shudder as I tried to push the memory of that encounter away yet again. Since that time I had done my best to avoid Gerry Albritton and had been mostly successful. Diesel and I ran into her twice on walks, but on both occasions I got us away from her as quickly as I could. The woman made me uneasy. It was more than her aggressive friendliness, simply something I couldn't define, that made me wary of her.
I still hadn't told Helen Louise about Gerry's blatant flirting with me. I wasn't sure why I hesitated to share it with Helen Louise. Perhaps it was because I suspected so strongly that Gerry had an underhanded purpose in behaving like that. The more I was exposed to it, the more I began to think the flirtatiousness had a forced quality to it. Until I could figure out what lay behind it, I planned to keep it to myself.
Compounding the situation was the mystery surrounding Gerry Albritton herself. Right after that first meeting, I questioned Melba Gilley, my friend since childhood and my coworker at the Athena College Library, to discover what I could about my new neighbor.
Gerry claimed to have lived in Athena when the subject arose during my first encounter with her-yet Melba didn't know Gerry Albritton, and Melba knew everyone who had lived in Athena over the decades.
"Only Albrittons I know don't have a single Geraldine in the family," Melba said, obviously puzzled. "I could be wrong, of course, but none of the Albritton boys our age married a Geraldine, either."
"That's the name she claims now," I said. "Maybe she used to go by a name besides Geraldine."
Melba frowned. "Maybe, but I don't think so. If I got a good look at her, I could probably figure out who she is."
"I asked her if she's related to the city councilman, Billy Albritton," I said. He did not represent my district, but I had seen him around town, and his picture turned up in the local weekly newspaper on a regular basis. He was around seventy, I thought.
"I know Billy and his sister, Betty," Melba said. "I'll ask him if he knows her. I don't get along well with Betty."
I didn't want to delve into Melba's potential feud with Betty Albritton, so I didn't inquire why the two didn't get along.
"Talk to Billy, if you like," I said. "Gerry professed not to know him, though. Said it must be a different set of Albrittons."
Melba snorted. "All the Albrittons around here are one big family. Some of them are pretentious as all get-out, but that's another story." She locked gazes with me. "What's all this interest in another woman, anyway?"
I hesitated. "I'm curious about this woman because something seems off about her." I didn't want to tell Melba about the flirting, or she might take it into her head to confront Gerry Albritton herself on Helen Louise's behalf. Melba was fiercely protective of her friends.
"Like what?" Melba asked.
I shrugged. "I can't really say. She seems fake somehow. But maybe I'm making way too much of the whole thing."
Melba shook her head. "No, you've got great first instincts about people. If you're feeling like something's off about this whoever-she-is, then something sure is off."
I had to smile. Melba never failed to support me, and her friendship all these years was a blessing I never took for granted and hoped I never failed to return.
When I came out of my reverie I discovered that my plate was empty. I noticed that Azalea stood by the stove, and she was staring at me.
"I don't reckon you heard me," Azalea said.
"Sorry, I didn't. What did you say?" I asked.
"Wanted to know if you wanted another biscuit and more ham."
"Gracious me, no, thank you. I've had plenty." The truth was, I would happily have eaten another biscuit or two, packed with ham, but I had to make some effort to keep my waistline under control.
"If you're sure." Azalea gazed at me a moment longer. When I didn't respond, she sighed and turned back to the stove.
Diesel had resumed batting the crumpled invitation around the kitchen, and I knew I had to take it away from him. I couldn't ignore the invitation, much as I would have liked to. No, I would probably have to give in and accept. But only if Helen Louise was available to go with me, I decided. The invitation had said and guest.
I heard the front doorbell ring, one sharp, quick note. I pushed back from the table and rose. "I'll get it," I said.
Diesel preceded me. He loved visitors and was invariably first to the door.
I opened the door, a smile of greeting ready, but no one waited on the other side. I was about to step forward onto the porch, but Diesel's growl alerted me.
As I halted and glanced down, I heard faint sounds of mewling from the area near my feet. I had been about to step into a box containing five kittens.
Two days after The Great Kitten Rescue, as Stewart insisted on calling it, my new four-legged boarders came home from the veterinarian's office. Dr. Romano, Diesel's vet, had checked all five kittens thoroughly. She estimated they were about eight or nine weeks old, ready to be weaned. They were healthy and had obviously been cared for before they wound up on my doorstep.