3: Christmas With the Careys
Cinnamon's ears twitched nervously under the hood of her coat as Ian pressed the bell. Footsteps came briskly to the door, and it was pulled open by a fairly stocky, quite tall man with dark hair, deep and vibrant brown eyes, and a sly, even vulpine smile. He wore dark trousers and an emerald green waistcoat with matching bow tie.
"Ah, Ian!" he greeted, his voice deep and richly avuncular, his manner warmly charming. "Come in, come in!"
Ian, wearing a pale suit and tie with a raincoat over it, gave the man a firm hug and stepped inside. "Good to see you, Tim! May I introduce my new best friend - Cinnamon. Cin, this is my boss, Tim."
The cat moved closer, nerves growing. "Delighted to meet you."
"Oh, the delight's all mine, I assure you!" Tim beamed, taking up her hand and kissing the back of it. "Please, come inside and hang up your coat, then we'll join Hazel."
"No Pat?" Ian asked.
Tim shook his head, sadly. "Unwell, I'm afraid, and as Glyn's still with his family, it'll just be us tonight. Hope you don't mind."
"I'm sure we'll cope." Ian set his coat on a hook, then stood aside for Cin to do the same.
Beneath hers the cat was clad in a sleek, wine red chiffon dress with a wide halter neck, a low, elegant back, a thin sash around the waist and a flowing skirt that reached her ankles.
"My, my, my!" Tim's grin widened. "Dear Violet's taste in companions is truly impeccable!"
"I'm certainly not complaining." Ian affectionately stroked the top of Cin's head, between reddened ears. "Shall we?"
"This way!" Tim ushered them along a tidy passage lined with scenic paintings to a plush sitting room lined with antique bookcases, vintage books filling every one. Six generous armchairs and a card table took up the central area, with cosy lighting provided by standing lamps. The wreaths and garlands of twined holly, pine and red and green ribbons artfully spread around lent a festive air.
By one of the chairs stood a sandy-furred AnthroPet rabbit female in a tan waistcoat and trousers, her hands tidily folded in front of her. She was a little shorter than Cin, with pale green eyes, slender ears, a trim figure with subtle shaping and a generous puff of a tail. A pair of wide, curved glasses spanned her muzzle, linked to a chain around her neck.
"Hazel, meet Cinnamon!" Tim introduced, with grand flourishes of an arm. "Hazel, Cinnamon. I'll get the drinks..."
As he swept through another doorway, a suddenly bashful rabbit took a step towards the cat, stretching out a paw. "P-pleased to meet you," she welcomed, voice a softly husky murmur. "You look l-lovely."
"Thank you." Cin lightly squeezed the hand, feeling self-conscious for no reason she could figure out. "You look...smart."
"Smartest bunny you ever did see!" Tim declared, striding back in to set a tray of drinks and glasses on the card table. "A veritable fur-lined encyclopaedia. Couldn't manage without her!" He brushed her cheek with a fond smile. "Now, we have a sprightly brandy for us, Ian, and a nice fruit juice for the ladies. If it doesn't appeal, dear Cinna, I'm sure we can find something else."
"It should be fine," the cat assured him.
"Good, good!" Tim gestured to the chairs. "Sit down, sit down." While everyone else took seats he passed out drinks, then settled down with a full glass of brandy. "You know, it's a great pity you girls can't imbibe with us. Make for an even more amiable evening."
"Someone has to stay responsible," Cin responded, dryly.
"Hah!" Tim barked a fulsome laugh. "Fair point, well made!" His eyes sparkled. "And a wit to match her beauty. A rare one indeed!"
"Please don't exaggerate," the cat demurred with a chuckle, ears red.
"And don't even think of trying to steal her away," Ian warned.
"Wouldn't dream of it!" Tim assured him. "Got a rare one of my own already. They do make such a difference, don't they?"
"Definitely. Only had Cin a few days and already can't imagine living without her. True, a few less hairballs would be appreciated, but..."
Cin leaned over to cuff him. "Says the man who leaves beard shavings in the sink and toenail clippings practically everywhere, and..."
"You keep going," Ian warned, playfully, "I tell them of the outfit you were wearing when you showed up outside my door."
"You promised never to mention it again." Cin pouted.
"Knowing Violet, I'm guessing something 'racy'?" Tim posited, with a knowing smirk.
The cat nodded. "A French maid outfit two sizes too small. It was that or a bit of lace you could call lingerie if you were feeling generous."
Hazel's ears stood stiffly upright. "My goodness. Whyever would she make you wear such inappropriate things?"
"To try and get a rise out of Ian," Cin clarified, finding it very hard not to smile as she looked at the gentle rabbit. "If you catch my drift."
"She means well, in her own strange way." Tim sighed. "But this does feel a step too far. Maybe I should have another word with her."
"Don't put yourself out on my account," Ian told him. "I've learned to live with her, and the outfit did help break the ice."
"Ah, but it's not just your account," Tim argued. "It was hardly fair on poor Cin, either. No thought of her preferences, at all."
"I don't even know them," the cat admitted, quietly.
"No shame, there," Tim was quick to state. "Took me an absolute age to figure out I had a terminal weakness for fair-haired young men."
"And I've only just realised where my interests lie," Hazel contributed, her faintly coy gaze on Cinna. "Not that I've the confidence to act upon them, just yet."
Tim lightly scratched behind her ear. "You've plenty of time."
Indecision filtered across Cin's face; she eventually opened her mouth to address the rabbit, but Tim's booming voice cut her off.
"So, who wants to see my latest acquisition?"
"A suitably stirring tale attached to it, I hope?" Ian asked.
"Of course!" Tim reached behind him, sliding a slim, brown volume from the shelf and holding it up. "This is a diary. More particularly, it's a diary written by a fairly low-level member of a Chicago gang during the 1920s. The era of prohibition." His grin grew. "The era of Alphonse 'Scarface' Capone."
"Capone?" Ian exclaimed. "Even for you that's a find."
"Well, they weren't a member of his outfit," Tim admitted, "but they were part of one of his tougher rival gangs. Still got snuffed out in the end, of course - no-one withstood Capone forever - but made it hard work for him. If it were a movie, it'd have been directed by Scorsese."
"How'd you find it?" Cin asked, deep curiosity washing away her little conflict for now.
"Grit, moxie and pure dumb luck!" Tim laughed. "Heard rumours of it through the usual channels, and when I happened to find myself loose in Capone's old stomping ground a couple of months back I thought I'd see if I could track it down. It was difficult - the outfits might be long gone but Chicago people are still grit-hard and bargain tough - and I'll admit I almost gave up, especially since I was running out of time, but I heard of an auction of gangster memorabilia, and thought I'd check it out. Lo and behold, one of the lots was this very book! Got into a bit of a bidding war, and paid more than I wanted, but I won it, and it was worth it. Grim but illuminating, this little volume."
"You collect books, then?" Cin was leaning forward, fascinated.
"Rare ones, strange ones, obscure ones," Tim confirmed. "I even have one or two valuable ones. Care to guess which they are?"
The cat's gaze roamed across the hundreds of volumes all around the room, from large ones with elaborate, engraved covers to small, worn and shabby ones that looked to be barely holding together. "I wouldn't have a clue," she admitted.
Tim replaced the diary, then moved round to draw a nondescript grey book from another shelf; he handed it to Cin, who read the stark black text printed on the cover: THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H G WELLS.
"Oh!" The cat's ears perked forward. "I've wanted to read this one. I can't imagine why it'd be so valuable, though, unless..."
"Check the date," Tim prompted, grin stretching to his ears.
Cin opened the book. "1897." She gasped. "But...but The War of the Worlds was published in 1897, which would mean..."
"Which would mean you're holding a genuine first edition," Tim told her, drawing his words out with relish. "If I were to put that to auction, there's a good chance it would fetch a couple of thousand pounds..."
"Thousand?!" Cinna squeaked. "And you're letting me hold it?"
Tim laughed. "Calm yourself, my dear. As far as I'm concerned books are to be read and held and enjoyed, not locked in plastic bags or glass cases or hermetically-sealed vaults, especially ones as brilliant as this."
Cin stared at the book for a long time, sorely tempted, then she very carefully laid it on the card table. "I'd still rather not take the risk. No way I could afford to replace it..."
"I can lend you my copy," Hazel offered.
The cat smiled at the rabbit. "Kind of you. Is it a favourite of yours?"
Hazel nodded. "My second, behind Dracula. Tim keeps insisting he'll buy me a first edition of that, but as you can't get one for less than ten thousand, I'm not holding my breath."
"Ten thou...?!" Cinna choked on her drink; Ian patted her back. "I had no idea there was so much money in books..."
"The right books, yes." Tim, having returned The War of the Worlds to its place, settled back in his chair and recharged his brandy. "You ought to see how much a first edition of The Hobbit or A Study in Scarlet will bring in, and that's before you get to the signed ones. Almost entirely out of my purview, of course, but I do get the odd wealthy client after something to boast about."
"That reminds me," Ian put in. "Did you ever find that signed Wind in the Willows?"
"None that aren't already in private hands, no." Tim frowned. "I'm all for throwing in the towel - chances of one showing up for sale are tiny to say the least - but the client's adamant, so..." He shrugged, then sat up, smile flourishing anew. "Speaking of difficult customers, I hear you had a prime example in the shop, recently."
Ian half-groaned, half-laughed. "You'll love this. Someone asked for a copy of, and I quote, 'the book with the girl and the queen and the cat in the hat and stuff'. It took us almost half an hour to figure out they meant Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and then they decided they didn't want it after all. How I kept my cool I will never know..."
"So that's why you were so abusive to the steak that evening." Cinna chuckled. "Almost hammered it through the counter."
"I was pretending it was their face." Ian flashed a dark grin. "Speaking of the shop, there's something else I need to talk to you about, Tim."
"The new stock, yes." Tim looked to the rabbit and the cat. "This'll be a little dry, ladies, so maybe you should show Cin your collection, Hazel dear. I'm sure she'll enjoy it."
"All right." The bunny stood and offered the feline a hand.
Feeling faintly self-conscious Cin took it, and allowed herself to be led from the room. She was taken to Hazel's bedroom upstairs, a cosy and softly-lit space with a modest bed, a trunk and a case overflowing with well-loved books. The rabbit directed the cat to sit on the edge of the bed then drew a pleasantly yellowed, 1970s edition of The War of the Worlds from the shelf and handed it to her.
"It's not a first edition," Hazel smiled, shyly, perching next to Cin, "but it suits me just fine. You can borrow it as long as you want."
The cat felt her ears colouring. "Thank you."
"You know..." The rabbit sidled a fraction closer, so their flanks lightly brushed. "That dress really does look lovely on you."
Cin blushed brighter. "It-it was Ian's idea. He's spending far too much money on me."
"You ought to see what Tim buys for me." Hazel leaned over to open the trunk, and took out a delicate silver choker with a glistening citrine hanging at the front. "I've never plucked up the courage to wear it."
"It's beautiful," Cinna breathed. "And you really should wear it."
Redness climbing up her tall ears the rabbit put the choker on, citrine warm against the plush white of her throat. "Well?"
The cat stared at the bunny for a good long while, then reached out a hand to feather their cheek. "It's perfect for you."
Hazel beamed, even as her ears burned. She took hold of Cin's hand and bashfully touched noses. "Do you...do you think...?"
The cat's own ears were more than a little warm, her eyes not quite able to meet the rabbit's. "I think..." She cleared her throat. "I think I' d like to get to know you better, and if...if things should happen to, well, happen..." She softly nuzzled their cheek. "I'd be fine with that."
Hazel suddenly drew her into a hug. "Thank you. I promise to let you go at your own speed, and if things don't happen, well..." She gave the warmest of smiles. "At least I'll have a friend, regardless."
"I can promise you that." Cin squeezed her.
One of the bunny's ears perked. "Oh. Tim's calling. We ought to see what he wants."
"All right." Cin happily let Hazel take her hand again, and lead the way back to the sitting room. As they stepped into the doorway something in the manner of the two men set her on alert. A subconscious flick of Ian's eyes had her looking up, to find a sprig of mistletoe now hanging from the frame directly above. Hers narrowed. "What's going on?"
"Oh, we just thought it would be amusing." Tim's eyes were alight in a way that set alarm bells ringing. "A little festive fun."
"You planned this!" Hazel suddenly blurted out, her eyes wide. "You planned all of this! This whole evening!"
Cinna blinked. "You mean...?"
"I mean this was all to set us up. To try and spark something."
"Did it work?" Ian asked, hopefully.
"Well, yes, but..." The cat shook her head. "Why? Why do this?"
"Because Hazel's lonely," Tim explained. "Yes, she has me, but I know she desires the company of, for want of a better phrase, her own kind, but is much too shy to do anything about it. When Ian took charge of you, such a lovely creature, one we knew Hazel couldn't resist, well..."
"We decided to...help things along." Ian had the good grace to look at least a little guilty. "If we've done wrong..."
"I'm a little annoyed, true, but..." Cin sighed, softening, looking to the rabbit whose hand she still held. "Things have worked out. I still feel a price should be paid, though..."
"Maybe..." Hazel giggled faintly. "Maybe we only kiss if they kiss."
"Ooh." An impish grin bloomed. "Good idea!"
Ian and Tim shared a look, then nodded together. "All right."
"And it has to be on the lips, okay?" Cin insisted.
"Yours too," Ian countered.
Two sets of ears coloured. "Fine."
"But you go first," Hazel added.
"Then kindly step aside," Tim requested.
Rabbit and cat moved away, and the two men took their place in the doorway, under the mistletoe. A pause, Ian fidgeting, then Tim caught his face in both hands and pressed a hard kiss to his mouth.
When let free a blushing Ian spluttered and laughed. "The things I do for you, Cin."
The cat and the rabbit were heaving with mirth, leaning against each other's sides.
Tim just grinned wickedly. "You've no idea how long I've wanted to do that, if only to see Ian squirm."
"Well, it is a little awkward being kissed by your boss," the other man chuckled. "Your turn, ladies."
Feline and bunny took their place beneath the mistletoe, gazing shyly at each other for quite a while, before finally, softly brushing lips. They hugged, briefly, then Hazel moved aside so Ian could take her place.
"I need to get rid of the taste of stale brandy," he joked, before lightly pressing his mouth to the cat's muzzle. "No hard feelings, I hope."
Cin laughed, glanced affectionately at Hazel, currently nuzzle-kissing a smiling Tim, and rubbed her face against Ian's. "None at all."