Heather was having a good dream. She was not sure what it was about, but it was definitely good. She was warm and comfortable under a nice heavy blanket. She was…shaking? She told her eyes to snap open and her body to sit up suddenly. Instead, her eyes cracked open and she sort of rolled over and ended up on her side, feeling like a beached whale. “Mhrph?”
“Heather, wake up,” Carlisle said in a tone of voice that suggested he had said it rather more than once. Heather grumbled and tried to suffocate herself under a pillow to avoid the issue. Carlisle snatched it out of her limp hands and tossed it aside. “Wake up. I have to tell you something.”
Heather flopped onto her back, arms spread and eyes half open. “Why are you in my room? What time is it?”
“Seven. And I need to tell you something.”
“I picked up on that. Couldn’t it wait?”
Carlisle cleared his throat. “They may be here in an hour, so I thought it best to wake you now.”
Heather sat up on her elbows. “‘They’ had better be a delivery of donuts or I am never speaking to you again.”
Carlisle fussed with straightening her blankets as though he intended to make the bed with Heather still in it. “I didn’t want to be the first to tell you. But there’s no avoiding it now.”
“Well, what are they coming here for?”
“Poppy never told you because the whole thing never sat right with her. She didn’t want you involved. I suppose she planned to tell you eventually, but… At any rate, they are coming here to get familiars, now that Rune can’t stop me from inviting them.”
Heather had lived as a human long enough to pick up most of the American culture. She knew what a familiar was supposed to be. She knew what humans thought about black cats, too. “They’re adopting cats? What are we, the county animal shelter?”
“Changing-cats are particularly adept familiars for them.”
“Real, honest to goodness witches?” The extent of her exposure to the occult, even just the spiritual, was the Festival of Black Cats. With all the things she had to do as a human, what time was there for anything as impractical as magic? She flopped back in bed. “Is it April already?”
“Heather, this is no joke and we are not the only House of Cats to deal with these people.” Peering at him from one eye, Heather saw him sit up a little straighter. “This has been going on for a very long time.” When she did not respond, he pulled open the curtains, letting in a wave light.
Heather groaned and curled an arm over her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice muffled by her elbow. “I’m having a very hard time wrapping my head around what sounds like slavery.”
She felt Carlisle settle on the edge of the bed. “Cats who are so inclined make the choice to go with a human to work as their partner.”
“This is just rife with potential for abuse.” She nudged him with her knee, vaguely thinking of shoving him off the bed. He did not budge and it was too much work anyway.
“Naturally.” He scooted back several defiant inches and leaned across her legs, pinning her, to rest his elbow on the other side. “Which is why they all keep in touch with the House they came from. You don’t really think all those letters I get just come from cats vacationing in Florida, do you?”
“You talk to them?”
“They write so I know they are well. Several, in point of fact, were here for the winter. They do get vacations, you know.”
Heather squiggled back to sit against the head of the bed. “And Mother never told me about this why?”
“Cats are taken as young adults and she felt it was too big a decision for them to make at that age. And it is each cat’s decision.”
“So, if I had found a human who wanted me, I could have just left and there would be nothing she could say about it.” Under the slow-burn anger, because Mother had known Heather longed to leave, she felt a twist of comfort. It was a confirmation that Mother had been, at least in part, the person Heather had known and not just the immaculate Queen everyone else seemed to worship.
Carlisle sighed and patted her leg. “Cats value their independence above all else, to be certain.” He had known, better than anyone, how deep her desperation had run.
“Do the cats live as humans?” Maybe Heather was not as unique as she had thought. Was there a world full of cats who could have helped her make her human life succeed?
Carlisle hedged, offering no encouragement. “Some establish human lives to one extent or another. Others do not.”
“And are these humans…they aren’t…involved with the cats?”
Confusion cleared into an expression of horrified amusement. “What? Oh, no. My, what cat would choose a human?”
Heather cleared her throat. “What cat, indeed,” she muttered. In her mind, a woman’s long hair twined around the words “married, 1999.” The beautiful and terrible specter of Caroline Summers haunted her. “And you’re telling me that in an hour, the House will be full of these people — with permission, no less — hunting for the perfect familiar?”
“There are only a few of them in our area, but yes.”
Heather thought of Yvonne and Ms. Dahl and the exterminators and all the humans she was not allowed to bring home. Now this, like a big joke, like Mother still telling her that Heather had to live by different rules from everyone else. “I need coffee before I cope with this. Lots and lots of coffee.”
Topaz shook out his hair and tugged his shirt down. He was glad he had stolen so many of Heather’s cat’s bane pills. Not to mention the money. He stepped out of the bushes near where he made his home and picked his way down the small slope to the back side of the shopping center. The trash bins smelled of mice and the walkways were littered with gold-eyed, black-feathered birds pecking after human leavings.
The woods had emptied of everything small enough for Topaz to eat, all of them gravitating to the French fries and bread crusts and popcorn bags. There was all the food you could eat, if you could dodge the people and the cars. And if you were not cute enough for someone to try to take you home. Topaz sniffed and veered towards the fast food restaurant. Eventually, his hunger would outweigh the risks of catching birds in the plaza, but as long as the money lasted, he would hunt bacon cheeseburgers instead.
With his burger in hand, Topaz sat on one of the benches in the middle of the center, where he could watch people going by. He would have to stop at the gas station that night and scrub his clothing clean in the bathroom; the stains were starting to outnumber the clean patches. It was still early, so most of the people were adults. As it got later, the teenagers would come out in droves, especially on a Saturday night. Topaz looked wistfully over at the movie theater, their preferred destination. He would love to see a movie. But his cash pile was dwindling rapidly.
He stuffed another bunch of French fries into his mouth. Maybe he could get a job. He had never tried that before. He wished he had asked Heather about her jobs when he had the chance. Homesickness turned the food into dust in his mouth. He missed Heather’s food. He missed Carlisle, even if Carlisle was never going to speak to him again. His missed everyone.
He wanted to go home.
As his hunger subsided, he noticed a scent beyond meat and grease, some foreign familiarity. He looked up. He knew that woman, rattling through the parking lot with a cart full of groceries. Where had he seen her?
Topaz was out of his seat before he realized what he was doing. She had been at the House with that man. She had talked to Heather the day Heather came home. His instinct to avoid cars fell away as he jogged after her through the parking lot. “You know Heather,” he said without preamble.
The woman jumped and flinched away. She would not recognize Topaz, of course. He had not thought of that. And he looked awful, he knew, grimy and foul, not like a proper cat should. “Heather Lee?”
“We’re friends. We–” Topaz almost said they lived together, which was both no longer true and not in line with Heather’s cover story. “I helped her move in. Do you think you could–” Get a message to her, he wanted to say.
“I’ve got to talk to her,” the woman said, running right over Topaz’s plea with one of her own. She grabbed his forearm when he leaned away. “You’ll be seeing her, won’t you?”
Topaz could not bear the thought of never making it home. “Yeah, I’ll see her sometime.”
“She doesn’t have a cell phone or a home phone. What am I supposed to do, send her a letter?”
“You could,” Topaz said and wondered where he could get a postcard and a stamp to send one. Dear Carlisle, he thought. No, dear Heather. Dear Rune? Who would bring him home? Dear home.
“George won’t wait forever,” she said. She touched her cheek then rubbed her left hand. “She has to accept our offer. We need the money — We want to close the deal.” She turned away. With the press of a button, the trunk of her car swung open and she started loading paper bags into it.
Topaz fidgeted. The cars moving around the lot made him nervous and something ugly twisted around in his belly. He remembered the name George from Heather’s first day as well. He remembered George and the woman had talked about a buyer being interested. They had been talking about the House. “She won’t sell,” Topaz said, sick in his certainty that this was the reason the woman wanted to talk to Heather.
The woman’s back tensed. She straightened up but did not turn to face him. “Please inform Ms. Lee that I would like to speak to her at her earliest possible convenience.” Her voice cracked at the end.
Topaz backed away. She did not see him shake his head in mute denial. Then he turned and dashed away. He ran past the remains of his food and the bird pecking at it. He stopped. He hated to do it, but he went back, shooed the bird away, and bundled up the leftovers. Eventually, he thought, his appetite would probably return, when that ugly feeling stopped gnawing at him.
Freshly showered and barely dressed, Heather rushed downstairs to answer the door. She had no idea how to deal with this situation. What was she supposed to say? Welcome to the House of Cats; please don’t adopt anyone I like?
She opened the door. A truck and two SUVs were parked in front of the house and eight people clustered on front step. One woman started to say something and offer her hand, but Heather stared past her. “I know you,” she said.
A woman in her forties peered around from the back of the group. “Heather?”
Smooth out the lines. Lighten the hair. Drop back thirty years. “Umber?”
Umber pushed her way to the front of the group and threw her arms around Heather. “I can’t believe it’s you. It’s been ages.”
Heather cautiously returned the embrace. “A few lifetimes. What are you doing here?”
“Same as last time,” Umber said. “I’m picking out my own changing-cat this time.” She still had a hand on Heather’s shoulder.
It would be rude to shrug her off. Heather tried to hold still. “Is that why you were here last time?”
“What else would we be doing here? You guys won’t let us get near the place. I’m surprised you didn’t meet us at the door with a shotgun and a nondisclosure form.” Her laugh was bright and warm and had not aged at all.
“I was kind of young at the time.” Heather smiled reluctantly. “I don’t remember anyone but you being here.”
“Naw, my parents were here to get a familiar. I was just along for the ride.”
Someone coughed discretely. “May we come in?”
Heather looked up. Oh, right. Everyone else. “Please. Welcome to the House of Cats. I’m told there are rooms ready for you down here.”
Heather led them to the rooms Carlisle had said would be set up for them. They were down at the far end of the house, past the kitchen and tucked away. The room where Rune had convalesced was down there as well. She did not know if he was still sleeping there. “There are two, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide who goes where.”
Umber tossed her overnight bag into the room and took Heather by the arm. “Come on. We’ve got thirty years to catch up on. See you guys later,” she called over her shoulder. She steered Heather towards the kitchen. “I can’t believe how little the house has changed. That was the coolest weekend ever. I never forgot it.”
Heather had thought of that time over the years with protective fondness. She had warmed herself over that memory whenever human life became too difficult. Umber could do this, she would tell herself. “I had never met a human my own age before,” Heather said.
Umber looked her up and down. “Speaking of which, you’ve got to tell me what wrinkle cream you use. You’ve barely aged.” She turned into the solarium without looking, as though she had long since mapped the whole house in her mind.
Heather shook her head. “Extenuating circumstances. I always thought of you as still being ten years old.”
“I wish! Well, no,” she said as she sat down. “Then I would have to go through being a teenager again. No thank you.”
Heather curled up on the couch facing Umber. “This is so weird. I never knew why you were here. I thought there must have been some mistake, that you got lost here or something. I didn’t know there were regular humans involved with the House.”
“Try being ten years old and seeing a changing-cat for the first time. When Wendell died, it was like losing my brother.” Umber looked away, her mouth pressed thin. She sniffed. “Sorry. You would think I would be okay after five years. Everyone said he died young, even for your kind.”
“I’m sorry. I just found out this year that my Mother had died.”
“You didn’t know?”
“It’s a long story,” Heather said.
Umber spread her hands. “I’m not going anywhere. Truth is, it’s a little hard to even look at cats. Replacing Wendell, well, it’s just not possible.” She shook her head and gave Heather a lopsided smile. “So. Let’s hear it.”
Rune had been trailing the humans all day and every time he thought he would be able to get one of them alone, another cat came along and interrupted. He suspected they were trying to keep him away from them, rightly concerned that he would take exception to them being there. But that was before he found Heather with one of them. No one else was around. The two women sat on the couch, gossiping like school girls. They had not moved all day.
“Excuse me, Heather,” he said and jumped onto the back of the couch.
“Hi. What’s up?”
“I’m afraid I have to borrow her,” he said and tilted his head towards the human, “for a while.”
Heather looked suspicious. “You’re not going to do something hideous to her, are you?”
Rune glared. “You’ve never seen one of these events before. So you will be no help at all in doing background checks on the humans.”
“Background checks? What, you’re our security guard now?”
“As a matter of fact. If you don’t believe me, just go ask Carlisle,” Rune said, hoping against hope that Heather would not call his bluff.
Heather finally shrugged. “Umber, I’ll catch up with you later. And if he’s rude to you,” she said with a glance and a raised eyebrow at Rune, “just give him a good shake by the scruff of the neck. You have my permission.”
Umber laughed. “Sure thing. I’ll see you later.” When Heather was out of earshot, she patted the seat cushion. “It’s funny you should bring up Carlisle. Because he already did background interviews on all of us by mail. So I’m wondering what you really want to talk about.”
“You won’t tell Heather, will you?” Rune asked as he jumped down to sit with her.
“That depends. Is it something bad?”
“It’s something devious. But not bad.” He curled his tail around his body like a bolster. “She’ll be happy about it. Eventually.” He grimaced, baring his teeth momentarily. “I need a favor,” he bit out at last.
“What sort of favor?”
“You’ve been talking to her all day. You haven’t looked at any of the cats here or talked to anyone else. Are you really going to choose a familiar?”
Umber leaned sideways and rested her head against the back of the couch. “I thought I was ready to have a changing-cat in my life again. I think I was wrong.”
Jackpot. “My friend needs to go into town. But there’s no way her mother will let her on her own.”
“You need a taxi service, in other words. And a chaperone.”
“My brother is out there somewhere. He did something to help me and got banished for it.”
Umber sat up with a look of disgust. “You banish people here? I mean, how can you? Where else is a cat supposed to go? You are the place, aren’t you?”
“Stay focused,” Rune snapped. “Are you willing to go without a cat this year? I would make sure that it doesn’t reflect poorly on you.”
“Why aren’t you taking her into town?” Umber asked archly. “Or Heather?”
“I can’t leave the House,” Rune muttered. “And Heather can’t because Carlisle is her best friend and he did the banishing.”
“So you’re going behind everyone’s back. Sounds dangerous.” But her eyes sparkled with mischief. She no doubt thought the House was a magical paradise. There could be no real danger there. Idiot.
“I just need to get my brother back here. I won’t let them send him away again.”
“What about this kitten?”
“It was her idea,” Rune said with an embarrassed smile.
“My kind of kid.” She reached out like she would pet him or ruffle his fur but stopped even before he glared at her. “Introduce me to her then. I’ll go along with this.”
“You understand that if anything happens to her, if you prevent her from coming home or–”
“Stop,” Umber said and slashed her hand through the air to cut off his words. “Don’t even go there. I grew up with a changing-cat for a brother. I’ll make sure your kitten stays safe.”
Rune hesitated. But Heather knew this woman and seemed to trust her. And Carlisle might be a cold-hearted, brother-banishing son of a dog, but Rune believed he took his job seriously. Umber had to be the safest choice. “Wait here. I can’t be seen setting this up, so I’ll send Rafflesia out to you.”
Heather waited one short second between knocking on the door and opening it. Voices bloomed as it opened, cats and humans chatting amiably in cat-speak. The humans, all veterans in a part of her world she hardly knew, spoke fluently. By the window, Umber had Rafflesia on her lap and the two were speaking in low voices.
“Hey, Heather,” Umber called and waved her over.
Heather dropped to her knees beside them. “Rafflesia, your mother is beside herself.”
“She’ll calm down in a while. I just told her and she took it pretty hard,” Rafflesia said.
“That’s an understatement.” She chewed on a thumbnail, trying to decide what to say. Good luck out there? Don’t go? It’s harder than you think?
“Auntie Heather, this is my decision,” Rafflesia said firmly. “I want to go on an adventure.”
“Heather, you know I wouldn’t pressure her into this,” Umber said.
Heather did not know that. She liked the idea that she had a childhood friend, a human she could trust. But Rafflesia was her friend now as well. “Just, just give us a minute, would you?”
Rafflesia stretched and jumped down to the floor. “Come on, then. We’ll talk outside.”
Heather followed Rafflesia past the other humans, who were all listening intently while trying to pretend they were not. The cats made no such pretense for their part.
Out in the hall, Heather knelt again. “Are you really sure you want to do this? You’ve hardly ever been away from home and never without your mother.”
“Are you saying I’m going to get homesick? I know this is a big deal. But it’s not like Umber’s going to lock me up for the rest of my life. I can come here on holidays. I’ll see everyone again.”
“It’s not just that. Your whole life will be different.” There were so many things Heather could teach her, so many warnings she could give her, so many mistakes she could save her from, if only Rafflesia would wait.
Rune trotted up to them. Heather noticed Rafflesia’s eyes dart to the side before she shook her head. “I would expect you to encourage her.”
Heather sputtered, “You? You’re telling her to go?”
“I talked to Rafflesia about it before she told her mother,” he said as though that explained everything.
Rafflesia hissed to get their attention. “I don’t want you two playing tug-o-war over me. It’s not your decision.” She put her paws up on Heather’s knees. “But it would be nice if you gave it your blessing. You have all these great things you’ve done, all these places you’ve seen, and I want to see them too.”
Heather sighed. What she would not have given for someone to offer her permission, even encouragement, when she wanted to leave. She would have known she was welcome to come back without fearing she would be trapped again. “Of course.” She stroked a hand over Rafflesia’s ears. “You should do what you want. And I know we don’t have much time, but ask me any questions you have.”
Rafflesia purred. “Thank you.”
“Go on. Umber will be wondering what you’re doing.” Heather closed the door behind Rafflesia. Then she turned on Rune, who had been watching in silence. “I can’t believe you.”
“Because heaven forbid I change my attitude towards humans or living outside,” Rune grumbled.
“No, I mean, I actually fail to believe you. I think you’re up to something. I’m not sure I like it, whatever it is.” Heather lurched to her feet. “But I hope you know what you’re getting Raff into,” she said. “She’ll pay the price if this goes wrong.”
Rune shrugged. “Not if I can help it.”
Rafflesia purred as Valoria groomed her one last time. “Are you sure you won’t come down to see me off?” She did not even mind when her mother’s rasping tongue rumpled the fur between her ears and smoothed it down again for a second time.
Valoria rested her chin on her daughter’s head. “I’ll just make a scene, dear.”
“I’ll be back before you know it. I promise.” She knew it was true and even so, her stomach churned.
Valoria bumped their heads together. “You’d better get going.”
Rafflesia jumped up onto the bathroom counter and gulped down the cat’s bane pills Heather had given her. As she dressed and pulled her hair up into a bouncy pony tail, she admired herself in the mirror. She had to touch the mirror and watch her hand connect with its reflection, hardly believing it was really her in the mirror. She grinned. Even if she was not really leaving for good, she planned to enjoy her adventure all the same. When she left the bathroom, her mother had gone. Nodding to herself, trying to remember it would be easier without mom there, she slung the backpack over her shoulder and headed downstairs.
All the other cats were going unchanged. The humans loaded them into carriers, ready to go in the various vehicles. Heather and Carlisle presided over everything, but Rune was no where in sight. He had come to her in the night with last pieces of advice:
“Don’t leave Umber for any reason. Don’t let anyone separate you. And if anyone asks, she is your aunt and you’re with her for spring break.”
“And Topaz? What do you want me to say to him?”
“Just get him back here. You have enough cat’s bane for both of you?”
“And a change of clothes for Topaz. Everything’s packed.”
“Okay. Get home safe, kid.”
Umber looked up from the cats she was talking to and saw Rafflesia. “Hey, check you out. Looking good.”
Rafflesia stood beside her. Her hands would not stop sweating. “I’m ready to go.” Her voice shook as she said it.
“Not so fast,” Heather said. Rafflesia felt a jolt, part fear and part hope, at the idea that Heather would stop her at the last minute. But all she said was, “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to me?”
Rafflesia willed Heather to sense though the hug they shared that she intended to come home again. She hated to make Heather worry. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” Heather asked, still holding her.
“For trusting me to do this.”
In a whisper, Heather said, “I trust you and Rune both.” She pulled away. “I know you’re going to be fine. You’ll make us all proud. And we’ll see you again.”
Rafflesia waved goodbye as Umber’s truck pulled away from the house. She watched, twisted backwards in her seat, until the rise of the hill blocked it from sight. She turned around with a sigh. “That was harder than I thought it would be,” she said.
Next to her, Umber said, “Growing up always is.”
Rafflesia turned in a slow circle. “He’s not here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you see someone who looks like that?”
“So? Can you just sniff him out?”
Rafflesia gave her a look of withering scorn. “Do I look like a dog to you?”
“I just thought –”
“Shh. Let me think.” She scanned the plaza. When they came here with Heather, they went home through the back lot. She pulled Umber after her by the hand. “Through here,” she said as they slipped down a small path running between the end of a block of stores and the unused patio of a restaurant.
“But there’s no one back here,” Umber said.
“If he’s not out with the humans, he’s holed up for the day,” Rafflesia said and crossed the parking lot. A hill of scrubby brush and oak trees rose behind it, headed in the direction of the House. A billboard planted halfway up proclaimed it the location of the Shadow Hills Plaza Extension, but the hill was otherwise untouched. Rafflesia walked past the first tree and stopped.
Rafflesia hushed her again. She turned her head; stupid ears, fastened in one place all the time. Umber watched her with interest, her own head cocked as well. Nothing. She continued up into the trees.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Umber said.
“Neither did I. I just have to think like him. He has to be staying out here to sleep and change.” She braced against a tree trunk as she climbed over a ledge of rocks. “Not too close to the edge — he could be seen as a human.” Heather said that when they all had to hide in the woods behind the house. “Up in a tree, out of reach.” Elly and Rune knew that; a cat in danger always seeks higher ground. “But Topaz will be here, around people. He loves them, which is, okay, weird.” But the heart wants what it wants, Mysti had told her when she asked about toms and queens and kittens and why Mysti went away all the time.
“Up there,” Umber said. She was out of breath and leaned back against a tree, pointing up into another. “Bag.”
Topaz’s bag was wedged into the crook of a tree. Rafflesia tipped her head back. Up in the high branches there was gold amid the green. “Topaz,” she called, low and soft. He moved, but did not come down. He smells Umber, she thought. “Topaz, it’s me, Rafflesia.”
There are taboos against picking up cats, but when Topaz jumped and clawed his way down the tree and catapulted into Rafflesia’s waiting arms, there was nothing she could do but clutch him to her chest and rub her cheek against his head.
He pushed back against her, tucking his head under her chin to share scent, purring all the while. At last, in a ragged voice, he said, “Man, are you a sight for sore eyes.”
Rafflesia laughed and clutched him tighter. “It’s time to go home.”
Topaz watched as Umber shut the door to her motel room behind her. On the bed, Rafflesia sprawled on her stomach, TV remote in hand. Topaz jumped from floor to bed to her back. He kneaded her shirt gently, getting the feel of her under his paws, then settled down. Rafflesia turned up the volume on the TV with a glance at the far wall.
“We’ll need to put in an appearance later,” Umber said in a low voice as she sat next to them. The TV almost drowned her out, even side by side. But next door was another room where a cat and human stayed and they did not want to be overheard. “Everyone is going to eat dinner in there.” She jerked her thumb towards the wall.
“How are we going to explain when I leave?” Rafflesia asked. Her breathing pitched Topaz like a cork on a wave.
Umber shrugged. “Just tell them. If you say you want to go home, that’s that. I’d be in more trouble if I stopped you. Maybe Heather will let me stay a bit when we get back.”
“Do you think Carlisle will talk to me yet?” Topaz asked. He spoke to Rafflesia, but he watched Umber. A human talking in cat-speak. She looked different somehow, not like a cat when changed. All human. It was amazing. He watched as she got up again and pulled a plastic bag from her suitcase. Inside were bottles of shampoo and soap. He concentrated on her movements, which had an odd elegance to them, even if they were so much clumsier than a cat’s.
Under him, Rafflesia made an unhappy noise. “I think he’s still pretty upset. Did you know he and Rune don’t get along? They make nasty faces behind each other’s backs.”
“At least I can count on Rune and Heather being happy to see me. Did she give you all that stuff?” Topaz asked with a flick of his tail to indicate her backpack.
“Some of it,” Rafflesia said slowly. “Rune and I didn’t exactly tell her what we were doing.”
Hearing Rafflesia speak with anything less than bright, teenaged enthusiasm surprised him. “But she knows, right?”
“Oh, sure. I mean, she pretty much said so before I left.”
“You mean she just figured it out?” Topaz’s tail thrashed so much Rafflesia had to bat it away from her head. “Did Carlisle actually rescind my banishment?”
“Had Heather overruled him?”
“Raff, did anyone other than you and Rune decide I could come back?”
“Not exactly,” she said with the misery Topaz suddenly felt. “But Rune said all you had to do was come home and he would take care of everything.”
Topaz jumped from her back and paced across the bed. “I’m still banished. I’m not allowed back.”
Rafflesia rolled onto her side so she could gesture at him with one arm. “Heather will let you back as soon as she sees you.”
“No, she won’t! You don’t understand.” Quietly, he said, “You didn’t see the way she looked at me after the fire.” Like he had betrayed all her trust. Like their friendship had been irrevocably spoiled. “She won’t forgive me and neither will Carlisle.”
“Heather said she would see me soon,” she said, a desperate edge to her voice. Her cheeks flushed red under a smattering of freckles. “She meant she knew I would come home with you.”
“You think. You think that’s what she meant. I bet she didn’t really know what you were doing.”
“Topaz, you have to come home with me. Look at you. You’re skinny. Your fur is matted. You can’t stay out here.”
“I won’t go where I’m not welcome.” His fur bristled at the thought. He had been kicked out of a home once before this. She could not imagine what it was like to be driven away by someone you loved. “I won’t go.”
Across the room, Umber crinkled the plastic bag in her hands. She looked between Rafflesia and Topaz, eyebrows pulled together and a tooth biting into her lower lip. “This is an unexpected complication,” she said with a sour twist to her mouth. “Maybe I won’t be seeing Heather again as soon as I thought.”