by Cheri Ritz
Frankie Malone is out and proud. She works at an animal shelter, volunteers at a local LGBTQ youth center, and helps out at her favorite café. But even with all that personal fulfillment, it seems like something’s missing in her life. When one of the shelter cats makes a run for it, Frankie bumps into the woman who might just change her world.
If Lily Lancaster can keep up the perfect image her manager has crafted for her, she could be the next big thing in country music—even if it means wearing just the right clothes, singing just the right songs, and being seen with just the right people. Hiding her true self seems like a small price to pay for making her dream come true.
But when Lily scores a gig in Las Vegas during Rodeo Week she meets free-spirited Frankie—who turns her whole idea of a perfect world upside down.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"What if you had to choose between chasing your dreams and being true to yourself? Would you be able to enjoy your success if you were living a lie? These are a couple of the questions I considered when I started writing Lily’s story. Lily learns it’s a hard enough ride for women who work in the world of country music, but if you add the word lesbian to the mix it becomes a whole other rodeo.
Speaking of rodeos, did you know National Finals Rodeo is an actual event that takes place in Las Vegas every year? It is and I thought it would be a fun backdrop for the next adventure for this circle of friends. Frankie is navigating a budding relationship with a rising country music star and struggling with her own professional rough patch all at once. She relies on her best friends’ support more than ever. It only makes sense that they would all need to let loose and live a little!
Low Key Love is the final book in the Lez Vegas series, so readers will reconnect with some old friends from Vacation People and Love’s No Joke. They’ll get a peek at what’s been going on at the Café Gato too. But if you haven’t caught up on the series, don’t worry—Low Key Love is a stand-alone story about Frankie and Lily learning what it means to be true to themselves and finding love along the way."
Frankie Malone leaned back at her desk and stretched her arms above her head. How could they get away with labeling the office chair ergonomic when after sitting in it for just a couple of hours it felt like an elephant was dancing the cha-cha-cha along her spine? At twenty-nine she was too young for her body to be feeling this way. Six a.m. starts to the workday were a good way to stay ahead of her workload so she could she leave the office early to volunteer at the local LGBTQ youth center, but they made for a hell of a long day.
It was barely after eight when her assistant, Cara, peeked into her office. Her sleek, brown hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, making her blue eyes seem even bigger and brighter than usual. She was a total ray of sunshine, and Frankie’s favorite coworker. “Hey, Mara is over at the café and she said she needs you to get over there ASAP.”
“Ugh. I am drowning in work. I really shouldn’t.” Frankie pushed her keyboard out of the way and dragged another stack of papers across her desk to emphasize her point. Were the manila folders multiplying? It was taking forever to get all these old files scanned into the system. When she took the Development Director position at the Clark County Animal Shelter she imagined she would be getting more doggo and kitty playtime than the job really entailed. She stole visits to the kennels and cages as often as the paperwork would allow, but it was never quite enough. Those cuties waiting for their forever homes needed more of her attention, but she knew she had actual-job duties she was expected to perform. After six years of the same old thing there was no denying it—she was burned out. “Did she say what she needed? Is this about the video?”
Cara’s eyebrows raised in blissful ignorance as she shook her head. Not only was she a great assistant, she was extremely patient with Frankie’s friends regularly butting in on the workday. “She didn’t say, but she looked kind of frazzled.”
Frazzled? That wasn’t like Mara at all. Out of everyone in their friend circle, she was probably the coolest of the bunch. Mara didn’t panic, and she certainly didn’t frazzle. Maybe she really did need her at the café. Frankie could take a minute out of her morning to run next door and find out. She could use a coffee anyway. “Okay, yeah. I’m just gonna run over there for a minute and make sure everything’s cool. Cover for me?”
Frankie closed the second button of her official Clark County Animal Shelter logoed polo shirt as she breezed out of her office. She paused in the lobby of the shelter to scratch Singe under the chin. The twenty-two-pound tabby was perched on a cushion in the front window of the shelter where he could serve as a greeter to visitors and oversee the business. The cushion used to be located in the front window of Café Gato next door until the health department put an end to the shelter cat visitation program there. The program was one of many Frankie had instituted that had resulted in an uptick in feline adoptions. To make up for its loss, she had replaced the real-live visits with a video presentation that played on a loop in the café, featuring Singe and the other shelter animals. Not quite the same, but better than nothing.
“You hold down the fort, Singe,” she cooed. “I’ve got to see what Auntie Mara wants next door.”
What could be so important that she had to make an immediate appearance in the café? Was something wrong, or was it just some silly whim? With Mara she could never be totally sure. As much as she didn’t want to be stuck at her desk, she really was busy. She needed to set some ground rules with her friends about interrupting her at work. As soon as she found out what they wanted…
Her thoughts continued to swirl as she pushed through the front door of Café Gato. While reading through the never-ending stack of animal-intake reports she had bitten her thumbnail down to the skin and the tender spot throbbed angrily. She mentally scolded herself for giving in to the bad habit. Grinning impishly, Mara met her in the café entrance.
“What is it, Mara?” Frankie quickly surveyed the café, relieved to see the rest of their circle gathered around their usual table by the front window. Everyone seemed to be accounted for and okay. The wall-mounted monitor was showing the video of the dogs and cats available for adoption. It didn’t look like an emergency situation. She eyed Mara suspiciously. Something was off. “What is that look you’re giving me?”
Mara glanced over her shoulder at the rest of their group before turning that million-dollar grin back to Frankie. She was holding a newspaper she’d previously hidden behind her back. Suddenly everyone in the café was on their feet holding a copy of that same newspaper in front of them too. Like a flash mob without any dancing, just an abundance of newsprint.
For a beat the world swirled around Frankie while her brain made sense of it all, but then her hand flew to her mouth as she saw the headline. About that same time Mara and the other patrons shouted the words printed there, “Thirty under thirty!”
“You made it, Frankie!” Mara enveloped her in a hug as her friends rushed over to congratulate her amid the applause of the other café patrons.
The annual “Las Vegas Thirty Under Thirty: People To Watch” article had finally been published, and Frankie was among those honored. Of course she knew she was in it—she had been interviewed for it a month before. She just hadn’t had a chance to pick up a paper or check it out online in her rush to get to work early that morning. Leave it to her friends to make sure she didn’t shortchange herself on celebrating her accomplishments.
“Thanks, you guys.” Frankie’s cheeks warmed with a mix of pride and love. The group had been there for one another through thick and thin since they had met nearly four years earlier. They were like family. She waved at the other good sports in the café who had gone along with Mara’s stunt. Only Mara Antonini could persuade a shop full of people relaxing with their morning cup of joe to participate in a practical joke on a stranger. “You all are too much. Thank you.”
“Come on.” Mara grabbed Frankie’s hand as the other customers returned to their lattes and muffins, and led her to their table. “We’ve got your skinny vanilla what’s-it-called waiting for you and you can take Penny’s seat because she has to go running back to work.”
“I’m not gonna just take Penny’s seat.”
Penny Rothmoor was the workaholic of the group and always seemed to be occupied by her position at the Rothmoor Towers Casino, her family’s business. In spite of her mostly-work-nearly-no-play ways she had a kind heart and was a vital part of their circle—the down-to-earth part that balanced her best friend Mara’s wilder streak.
“No, go ahead.” Penny kissed Frankie on the cheek sweetly before glaring at Mara with mock disdain. “I really do have to go running back to work.”
Frankie grabbed a scone from the plate of sweets in the center of their table, but any hopes she had of settling in for a quick coffee break with her friends were quickly dashed as a flash of orange zipped by on the sidewalk out front. A screech pierced the general calm that had only just returned to the café.
“Singe is on the loose!” Maeve, the gray-haired owner of Café Gato yelled as she stared out the front door. “Frankie, you better get him!”
A glance out the large storefront window filled in the gaps in the story for Frankie. A harried mother had propped open the door to the animal shelter with her hip while she struggled to push a stroller into the building. The toddler in said stroller was clapping his hands delightedly while chanting, “Kitty, kitty, kitty!” The cat was making a great escape.
“How can a cat that damn fat move that damn fast?” Mara shook her head in between sips of hot coffee.
Mara may have felt no stress about Singe making a run for it, but Frankie needed to make sure he returned safely. Singe was a resident of the animal shelter and therefore her responsibility. She made a dash for the door. “Someone stop that cat!” Once out on the sidewalk, she squinted her eyes against the bright Las Vegas sun. The orange tip of Singe’s tail waved teasingly in the air before disappearing around the corner at the end of the block. She gave chase as best she could in her espadrille wedges, yelling as she went, “Stop that cat!”
Fortunately by the time she turned the corner, someone had done just that. Singe was cradled in the toned arms of a beautiful woman. With no imminent danger of Singe making good his escape, Frankie slowed to a walking pace as she approached the duo.
The slim woman’s oversized plastic sunglasses and a floppy-brimmed straw hat covered a good bit of her face. Maybe she wasn’t used to the Las Vegas sun, or just very aware of protecting herself from it. Even with her face partially obscured it was still easy to see she was attractive. Her lips shimmered with a glossy sheen and were turned up into an easy smile. Even stopped in the middle of the hot sidewalk with her arms full of cat she looked completely at ease. She was gently murmuring to Singe as Frankie approached. “Where did you come from, big boy? It’s okay, we’ll get you back home.”
In addition to the relief that had washed over Frankie, knowing Singe was safe, she had a warmth spreading through her chest at this stranger’s kind tone. It was melodic—almost as if she was singing. Leave it to Singe to escape the shelter and run into the arms of a beautiful woman. You sly cat. Frankie, suddenly conscious of her own harried appearance after her run around the block, pushed at her springy brown curls and hoped for the best as she spoke to the woman. “You found Singe and you’re being so sweet to him, he’ll probably never want to go back home.” She grinned and stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Frankie. Frankie Malone.”
The stranger’s eyebrows shot up above the rims of her sunglasses and she hesitated as if expecting Frankie to say something else before finally shifting the big cat in her arms to free a hand to shake. “Lily,” she said simply, but her smile was warm. “Is this beautiful boy yours?”
Though her heartbeat had begun to even out from her run, Frankie’s chest buzzed as she held Lily’s hand a beat longer than a handshake required. “Not exactly. He’s from the shelter and I’m responsible for him though. The big guy thought he’d make a great escape,” Frankie said, turning on the charm. “Thanks for nabbing him before he could get too far. I owe you one.”
Lily shrugged it off like she was a woman who saved the day regularly. She had some kind of X factor. Cool confidence. Magnetic pull. “He came right up to me and rubbed his head against my leg while I was peeking in the window of the bakery.” She tipped her head toward the storefront.
Leave it to Singe to go for a gorgeous blonde. Clever boy. “Seriously, if you hadn’t grabbed him I’d probably still be running through the streets of Vegas.” Frankie laughed and a burst of butterflies released in her belly when Lily joined in. She wanted to keep it going. “Are you from around here, or are you in town on vacation?”
“Neither. I’m here on business.” Lily continued to stroke Singe’s fuzzy head. She squinted through her dark lenses at the logo on Frankie’s shirt. “Are you a big fan of the Clark County Animal Shelter, or is it a coincidence that you’re wearing that shirt and chasing a cat down the sidewalk?”
Frankie fiddled with her shirt buttons again. “I work there. This is the official employee uniform, I guess.” Polo shirts weren’t exactly her own personal style, but at least she got to dress business casual at work every day. There. One perk to the job. Her heart sank as she recalled the heap of paperwork waiting for her. She dispelled the depressing thought. She had to count her blessings where she found them and not give in to the bad vibes. For the moment she was chatting up a gorgeous woman in the Las Vegas sun. Not too shabby for a Wednesday. “Singe—that’s his name—is a resident there and somehow he managed to make a run for it. One minute he was lounging in the sun in his window seat at the shelter, the next minute he was on the lam.”
“He’s smart, I can see it in his eyes.” Lily nodded as she handed the tabby back to Frankie. “And adorable.”
“If you like Singe, you should meet Mr. Magoo. He’s a Maine coon who loves to shower.” Frankie was inspired by the brightness in Lily’s eyes at the other cat’s description. A fellow cat lover for sure, but there was something more there. Those eyes sparkled with something magical and mesmerizing. Charismatic. “You should come back to the shelter with me to return him. I can give you a tour if you’d like, and you can meet some of Singe’s friends. Then I’ll buy you a coffee at the café next door to thank you for finding him.”
Out of the corner of her eye Frankie noticed two teenage girls across the street. When she turned her head to look full-on, one was pointing at them. That was so Singe, attracting attention wherever he went. The girls started to cross the street, heading straight for them.
“I would really like that, but I’m actually late for something. A meeting.” Lily’s demeanor suddenly changed. Instead of their easy conversation her words now tumbled out quickly as if she were in a rush. Her gaze was fixed on the girls heading their way. She adjusted the big frames on her face, tugged on the brim of her hat, and spoke a little more quickly. “Maybe another time. I’m sorry, I really have to go. Thank you for the offer though.” Lily’s last words were said over her shoulder as she took off down the sidewalk in the direction opposite Café Gato.
“I didn’t even get your phone number,” Frankie called out after her, but it was no use. Lily was gone.
Frankie turned toward the street to show off Singe to the teenagers who had been pointing at him moments before. Any publicity was good publicity for the shelter animals. There were so many that needed permanent homes, and finding those matches was the one satisfying aspect of her role. But the girls who had been heading their way seemed to have disappeared just as quickly as Lily. Frankie shifted Singe up on her shoulder, kissed him right between his ears, and blew out a sigh. “Guess we’ve had enough excitement for one morning, mister. Time to get back to work.”
When she returned to the café after dropping Singe at the shelter, Frankie was greeted with a big hug from the owner, Maeve. “You found Singe! Well done.”
“Your coffee’s gone cold.” Mara was still sitting at the table by the window with Jenna. They were both scrolling through their phones, unconcerned. Apparently the two of them were fine with Frankie doing the cat chasing on her own.
“And someone ate your muffin,” Jenna added with a guilty grin.
“Someone, huh?” Frankie shot her friend a knowing look.
Maeve bustled over with the coffee pot to refill their mugs. “Zig is right—we are too old for this.” She sighed and plopped down in the empty chair at the table. Her gray hair struggled to escape the bun that held it back off her rosy face. Rarely did Maeve sit down on the job. Neither did her husband, Zig, for that matter. Mara joked that they were the busiest people in Las Vegas. “Girls, I have something to tell you.”
The three friends all leaned in toward the older woman. When Maeve talked, they listened. Unquestioningly. She and Zig had always been good to Frankie and her circle of friends. Not only with how they’d been open to promoting the shelter to their patrons. They also had given Frankie free rein to come and go, helping herself to whatever in the café. In return she had been there as needed as well, serving coffee or even hopping behind the counter to assist on occasion. Over the years the group of friends had hosted parties, meetings, even fundraisers at Café Gato. The little coffee shop was as much a part of fiber of the friend circle as any of the women.
“The suspense is killing me here,” Jenna growled and tugged nervously at the pointy peak of her midnight black fauxhawk as she broke the silence of Maeve’s dramatic pause. “Spit it out.”
Frankie shook her head at her friend. Jenna wasn’t known for her tact, but she could be a little softer when it came to dealing with the older woman who obviously had something important to share. She smiled encouragingly. “Go ahead, Maeve. We’re listening.”
Maeve blew out another long sigh and waved the dish towel, usually tucked into her apron, in the air as if she were surrendering. The gesture caused Frankie’s heart to sink. Something wasn’t right. She braced herself for Maeve’s words. “Girls, Zig and I are retiring. We’re selling Café Gato.”