All I Want for Christmas Is Her Excerpt 1


As an undercover asset for the spy agency HEAT, I’d taken down several bad guys in my day, but none who’d been as angry as Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants. To be fair, though, I’d never stuffed an enemy of the United States into a backpack cat carrier.

I turned onto my tree-lined, quiet-for-New-York-City, residential street. Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants emitted a low growl. Apparently, he did not approve of the location of his temporary foster home.

“Sorry, buddy. You’re not what I expected, either.”

When I’d signed up to provide a holiday foster home for a long-term shelter animal, I’d expected a small dog. Or a pup. I’d grown up with dogs. I understood them. And a dog would provide the perfect cover.

My boss, Ms. X, was the director of the Headquarters for the Elimination of Advanced Threats agency, known as HEAT to the few who knew about it. X had been very specific when she’d told me I was on a three-week holiday vacation. I was to keep my head down, blend in, and not draw attention to myself. That was the exact opposite of who I’d been for the last six years of my career. I’d been jet-setting around Europe, playing the part of a high-level State Department analyst. Flash and flamboyance were part of the job, especially when the marks were men. And the vast majority of the time, the worst of the criminal element men.

As I’d built the persona of Kat Hartmann, a quiet analyst at the State Department—the name true, the occupation a bald-faced lie—I’d pictured her with a dog. The dog would provide a different kind of distraction. Who remembers a dog owner’s face when they’re focused on an adorable mutt?

But now I was a cat foster mom, and the three-year-old, twenty-pound gray fluff ball of a cat on my back was a great big question mark. Nothing in my life of careful planning, knowing every angle, and always having an exit plan—essential to staying alive in the spy game—had prepared me for being so utterly unprepared.

“I’m going to take great care of you,” I whispered to the confused animal who was now relying on me. “And when the holidays are over and the full staff returns, I’ll take you back to the shelter, safe and sound. I promise.”

I had never broken a promise in my life and I wasn’t about to start now.

I stepped into the small, bright lobby of my new home. My home. I still couldn’t get over actually owning my own New York City apartment, my own piece of the world. And now I was going to share space with a cat for the first time in my life. Who says you can’t teach old spies new tricks? And at thirty, given the age of most of my coworkers, I definitely qualified as an old spy.

I waved to John behind the desk on one side of the lobby. John Stern, fifty-six years old. Married, no kids, season tickets to the Yankees. The source of my information was public websites. Unlike some of my fellow agents, I did not use company resources to check out people in my personal life. But I do know my way around the world’s best investigative websites.

John looked up from his computer screen and then did a double-take. “Whatcha got there, Ms. Hartmann?”

I grinned. “Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants. He’s my houseguest for the holidays.”

“Big name for a little guy. Although little is subjective, I guess.”

Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants gave a growl-purr.

“Not the friendliest little fella, is he?”

Imagining this big world and strange building—not to mention his underqualified new caretaker—through my small charge’s eyes, I felt defensive of him. “He’s doing the best he can.”

John smiled. “I imagine he is. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you and Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants.”

From the backpack, the fluff ball made a small noise that might have been a meow. Better than growl-purring, so we were making progress, I hoped.

“Mail came early today,” John called as I walked toward the elevators.

“Thanks.” I turned and headed for the mail room off to my left, then stopped in the doorway.

Mrs. Welby stood in the center of the small room with her mailbox door propped open. She was seventy-two, widowed twenty years, the president of the co-op board, and the lead dissenter on the vote to allow me to buy my apartment. She’d lost, and she didn’t take kindly to it. My source for that information was Mrs. Welby herself.

She glanced at me. “6B.”

That was her approximation of a hello. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Welby.”

She narrowed her eyes, immediately honing in on my backpack and its passenger. “What is that thing?”

“Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants is a cat.”

“He’s enormous! House cat or bobcat?”

If I’d been defensive a minute ago, now I was ready to throw down over my new companion. “He’s only twenty pounds, which is well within the building covenant’s forty-pound pet weight limit.” Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants growled, not even pretending to purr a little. “And he’s doing the best he can.”

“Hmph. As long as he’s quiet and stays inside your apartment. No cats on balconies, and no late-night noise. And I’ll know if it makes noise since I live directly beneath you.” She slammed shut her mailbox door and stomped away.

“Wow, Merry Christmas to you, too,” I muttered. I collected my mail and then exited the mailroom. Our cat-hating co-op board president was waiting for the elevator, so I hovered in the doorway and waited until it arrived, and she disappeared into it. Then I crossed the lobby and pushed the up button.

I could have—in fact, given my line of work and the requirement for physical fitness, I should have—taken the stairs. But I’d just spent three long weeks out of the country, finishing one last mission abroad. I’d flown in late last night and had gotten up at zero dark thirty so I wouldn’t miss my once-a-month Sunday morning shift at the animal shelter. Then I’d learned my foster dog was really a grumpy foster cat, and instead of bringing home a good boy or girl on a leash, I’d schlepped him on my back for ten city blocks.

While we rode to the sixth floor, I slid the carrier off my tight shoulders. We exited the elevator, with me holding him in front of me by the pack straps. He pressed his face against the clear bubble front that made him look like the world’s hairiest astronaut and stared at me. I set him and the plastic bag full of his necessities gently on the floor in front of my apartment door so I could fish out my keys. He yowled like I’d drop-kicked him out the window.

“Shh,” I whispered as I unlocked the door. “We’re trying to blend in here, and we’ve already attracted the attention of the cranky woman who lives downstairs.” I picked up the backpack and his things and hustled inside. I took a few seconds to catch my breath, then turned the carrier around to give Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants his first view of my apartment, his temporary home.

“See, it’s nice, right?” To keep it that way I might have to increase my cleaning service to twice a week once my little friend started shedding his long, gray hair on the cream-colored furniture and area rugs that had come with the apartment. I pointed to the sliding glass doors leading to the forbidden balcony. “We have a fab view of the little park across the street. You can watch birds in the daytime and see the Christmas lights at night. Are there winter birds in the city?” I turned him back toward me. “I don’t know if there are. This is new to me, too. We’ll find out together. How about that?”

He fell silent and resumed glaring. Things would get better soon. Probably. If not, my vacation wouldn’t be as relaxing as I’d hoped it would be.

I set him gently on the sofa and unzipped the top of the pack. I braced myself for him to hiss, leap out, maybe even jump on me and take out his hostility. But he sank to the bottom of the bag, suddenly looking about half his size.

“Come on out, buddy. We’re home.”

When he didn’t move, I opened the plastic bag the volunteer had sent with me. Maybe he’d feel better once I set up his food and water. And litter.

Oh, shit. Cats didn’t need walks and poop bags. They needed kitty litter and a box to put it in, neither of which were in the care package.

So, I needed a plan.

“First things first,” I said. I pulled his dry food out of the bag and sprinkled some of it into the large dog bowl I’d ordered earlier in the week. I filled the matching bowl with water, then dug through my recycling can under the sink and pulled out a medium-sized Amazon box. I pointed to it. “For emergencies. I’ll pop out to the corner store to see if they have litter. We’ll figure out a better solution once we have the basics.”

I shoved my keys back into my pocket and checked to make sure I had a credit card on me, then pulled open the front door. Mr. Whiskerbottom Fuzzypants screamed like I’d thrown him off the roof. I jumped and let go of the door, which banged closed.

Apparently, my foster cat didn’t want to let me out of his sight. Despite my obvious inadequacy, I was all he had.

“Listen,” I whispered as if my quiet tone would compensate for his outburst. “Mrs. Welby can’t kick us out now that I’ve bought this apartment, but she can make our lives hell.” And if she complained enough to the board and the other residents, she’d be turning a spotlight right on us.

As if to confirm my worst fear, there was a knock at my door.

Available at: