Emma Lafferty’s life had gone to the dogs. Literally. And to the cats. And the parakeets, goldfish, hamsters, even the occasional potbelly pig. What it and her fledgling pet-sitting service hadn’t gone to was her bank account. Not enough, anyway.
She glanced quickly—again—at the Google map printout she’d made based on the reams of detailed information she’d gotten from Lionel Hamilton’s assistant. She’d always done better with a visual map rather than the go-south-on-route-whatever type instructions. Who knew which way south was? As luck would have it—her luck anyway—the aerial route had looked a lot simpler online. Of course, online, she hadn’t been trying to find a strange house in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, during a surprise winter ice storm.
“Happy holidays to me,” she muttered, squinting through the permanently fogged windshield of her beloved, but beat-up Land Rover.
She cracked the windows a bit farther, hoping in vain that would help clear the view a bit more, then rolled her side window down enough to reach out and slap the wiper against the windshield. Again. The rapidly building crust didn’t even budge. Her headlights barely penetrated the sheet of dense gray in front of her. Regardless, she couldn’t risk getting out on such a narrow, winding road. One oncoming vehicle and she’d be toast.
She slowed as she reached the peak of yet another long hill, bracing herself for the drive down the other side. Actually, a controlled slide was probably the best she could hope for at this point. “Why,” she muttered through chattering teeth. “Why did I agree to this?”
She knew why. Chelsea, her best friend and cohort since their days together at Tech, had sold her on what had, admittedly, sounded like a pretty sweet deal. Chelsea was in Human Resources at Hamilton Industries, and she’d heard through the grapevine that the grand poobah himself, Lionel Hamilton, was looking for someone to take care of his home and assorted pets over the holidays. A sudden change in dates for a scheduled business trip to the Far East had, apparently, thrown a last-minute wrench into his holiday plans.
Emma had thought it odd that one of Lionel’s many household staffers hadn’t taken on the job, but Chelsea explained that he’d already surprised them with an extended vacation for the two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s and didn’t want to rescind the offer.
The dilemma for Emma had been that the job required her to live on premises as both house sitter and pet sitter, and, being that he housed his pets at his weekend residence, said premises was a good two hours outside of town. Which meant she’d have to turn her regular clients down. During one of the busiest seasons of the year. But the pay was ridiculously good, and while she certainly wanted to make her newly established client base happy, Chelsea had also pointed out that doing a good job for Lionel Hamilton might be her ticket to building the kind of clientele any business would love to have. The kind with deep pockets and no time to manage their own lives, much less their own pets. So, Emma had crossed her fingers…and taken the deal.
Hamilton Industries was a conglomerate that owned most of Randolph County, Virginia, and employed pretty much everyone in it. Everyone except Emma. She’d removed herself from their payroll seven months earlier when a small inheritance had given her the gumption to do what she’d always wanted to do—open her own business.
Emma’s former job in accounting would have led to a nice, stable career. She was good at her job, and it was a dependable source of income. The only problem was it bored her to tears. In fact, she’d hated it. The idea of toting up long columns of numbers for the rest of her natural days left her feeling numb inside. She didn’t want to be numb. At twenty-nine, she was too young to be numb.
She smacked the dashboard, trying to beat the heater into functioning, not missing the irony as her teeth chattered so hard her jaw hurt. “So, I open my own business, and I’m still numb. Just literally, now.”
Three treacherous hills and numerous Hail Mary’s later, Emma finally spied the huge wrought iron gate, announcing the entrance to Lionel Hamilton’s mountain getaway. As she made her way slowly up the immense circular drive, she found herself wondering, if this was the weekend house, what did his everyday house looked like?
It was amazing even beyond what she and Chelsea had imagined during the hours of animated discussion they’d indulged in since she’d agreed to take the job. The massive marble pillars and soaring double-door entrance alone would have sent her best friend into gossip nirvana, Emma thought as she navigated her way around to the separate garage in the rear. Not that she wasn’t goggling over the place herself. In fact, she could hardly wait to get settled in so she could call Chelsea and share every detail.
She used the garage door opener that had been messengered to her, along with a small, bound notebook containing the most anal-retentive, detailed list of instructions, notes, and maps she’d ever seen in her life—and was profoundly grateful to have, as she’d accepted the job without ever directly speaking to Mr. Hamilton. She’d gotten a handful of his assistants instead, over the phone, via e-mail, and text message, all of them borderline frantic to make certain she followed the notebook to the letter. Emma had assured the seemingly harried crew that she’d be fine, privately wondering what the hell she’d really signed on for. Then the notebook had arrived. And she’d been a little worried ever since. Maybe more than a little.
Hamilton apparently micromanaged his pets and his home the way he did his assistants. It was no wonder his employees sounded like they needed antacid chasers with every meal. She was close to that herself, and she hadn’t even officially started the job yet.
Reminding herself how great the payday was going to be, plus the potential future clients the job would nab, Emma took a deep breath and eased her Land Rover into the ten-car garage. She then spent the next several minutes jaw-dropped as she stared at the half dozen or so very shiny, very expensive cars. She pulled in next to a midnight-blue Maserati and parked, then patted the dash of her Land Rover. “Don’t let them make you feel bad. You have character.”
She turned on the overhead light, sighing in relief when it didn’t flicker back off, then consulted the first of the many detailed house maps in the addendum section of the notebook. After making sure the garage door was closed behind her and the alarm light activated, she grabbed two of her lighter bags, and made her way to the main house through an enclosed passageway. Once she made sure she could get in and move around without setting off the alarm system, she’d unpack the rest. But first she wanted to go introduce herself to her charges.
They didn’t come to meet her at the door, but her notebook had explained that they would be penned up off the kitchen in the back, awaiting her arrival. She just followed the barking. And a voice shouting, “Welcome! Right this way!”
She wound her way through the expansive foyer, around the central staircase, then down one long hallway before finally coming to the double swinging doors that led to the kitchen. If you wanted to call it that. It did, indeed, have kitchen appliances and a large workstation in the center of one part of the immense room. That was the smaller part, though there was nothing small about it. Martha Stewart would weep for such a well-appointed kitchen space. But Emma’s attention was drawn to the rest of the room, starting with the overlarge, low, round table, patterned in beautiful detailed mosaic tiles. The chairs surrounding it were cushioned with heavy brown and burgundy pillows and the whole thing was framed with an immense stone fireplace.
“Welcome! Right this way!”
Smiling, she went over to the huge wrought iron aviary and smiled at the rather imperious African Grey perched inside. “You must be Cicero.”
“Cicero!” he repeated. “Welcome!” Then he whistled a beautiful tune that Emma didn’t know the title of, but couldn’t help laughing at, as she enjoyed his little show. She then turned her attention to the series of French doors leading to the enclosed, equally impressive, sunroom off the back of the kitchen. Most of her one-bedroom apartment would fit in that space. Behind the doors waited a tail-thumping basset hound named Jack, and Martha, a Harlequin Great Dane.
“Hi, guys,” she said, accepting their enthusiastic welcome with a sincere smile and open arms. They made quick friends, then she found their leads and specially tailored doggie jackets right where the notebook said they would be. Thankfully, they were both used to wearing their Burberry plaid winter-wear and didn’t struggle too much as she slid on the lined pieces and strapped them and their leads into place.
She led them both out into the cold, damp of the night as the ice and snow continued to pelt down. “Sorry, critters. I know this isn’t the best of situations, here.” As she carefully led them across the patio, lights sprang on in the trees, illuminating the immediate area, which was mostly wooded and slanted immediately uphill. The dogs were obviously used to the topography as they easily led her up a snow-and ice-covered path. The heavy layer of leaves and pine needles beneath the slippery surface provided much needed traction as their feet broke through the crusty surface. Still, she was huffing a little as they finally made it to a clearing at the top of the rise. The lighting cast an eerie glow through the mixture of snowflakes and slanted streaks of ice pellets, making her wonder what it must be like up here on a clear night. She spied two stone benches and evenly spaced mounds around the circumference, which were probably gardens or landscaped areas around the edges of the clearing, before becoming wooded once again.
Fortunately, the dogs made quick work of the business at hand, and they were soon heading back down the path and into the house. Where, just as the book noted, there were towels and a brush to loosen leaves and burrs, and chunks of ice, in this case, if needed. She quickly removed their leads and jackets, and rubbed them both down. Jack especially seemed to love this part of the deal, and squirmed in rhapsodic delight, while Martha spent most of the time sniffing Emma and trying to give her a dog-tongue facial. At least they were going to be easy to get along with.
“Welcome!” Cicero greeted them as Emma let all three of them into the kitchen area. “Right this way!”
She found the dogs’ water dishes and topped them off, cleaned Cicero’s as well, then rubbed her hands as she decided what to do next. First, she placed a quick call to her parents, letting them know she’d arrived safely, and once again assured them she would be fine, and yes, she was definitely going to miss seeing them for the holidays. She hung up, feeling a bit homesick. Christmas was her favorite time of year to go home to Connecticut. And though disappointed at not seeing their only daughter over the holidays, her mom and dad understood about the business decision she’d made and had supported her, for which she was very grateful. She thought about calling Chelsea, but decided to put that off until she’d settled in and seen more of the place. Which was, admittedly, calling to her. So, she also put off the plan of heading back out to the garage to get the rest of her things in favor of exploring. Otherwise known as snooping around.
She dug a bag of pretzels and a bottle of water out of one of the satchels she had carried in, and crunched on a few while she consulted the maps in the addendum section of the notebook.
“Snack time for Cicero! Snack time. I’m the pretty bird. Pretty bird!” There was a repeat performance of the whistled song, with a new flourish at the end.
She laughed and shook her finger at the Grey. “I’ve been well warned about your charming ways, mister. You’re not going to wheedle junk food from me. You’ll get your bedtime piece of mango, and that’s it.”
In response, Cicero gave her a wolf whistle, then laughed, quite impressed with himself.
Shaking her head and smiling, Emma balanced the notebook, the pretzels, and her water bottle, and wandered back to the main foyer, trying to decide where to explore first. Jack and Martha followed, quite happy to be off on another trek. She’d been informed that as long as she was in residence, they had the run of the house, but were to be put out in the Florida room if she had to leave for any reason. So she waved a hand toward the stairs. “Shall we?”
Martha loped easily up the wide marble staircase, while Jack took his time as his stubby little legs required a bit more effort to heave his long body from one riser to the next. But his tail was wagging the whole time, so she left him to his labors and went back to consulting the maps as she climbed to the second floor landing.
An hour later, she was quite thankful for the addendum maps, as she’d be hopelessly lost without them. Actually, even with them she’d gotten herself somewhat turned around, out at the end of the west wing—at least she was pretty sure it was west. Even the dogs had given up on the adventure and trotted off after some time, to God knew where. She was sure they’d find her when they got hungry or wanted to go out, so she wasn’t too concerned about that. But she was getting hungry herself and she had no idea how to get back to the kitchen, much less the garage, or the rooms she’d been assigned to stay in.
She was stumbling down a dark corridor, unable to find the hall light switch, when a very deep male voice said, “If you’re a burglar, then might I direct your attention downstairs to the formal dining room. The silver tea set alone would keep you in much better stealth gear for at least the next decade. At the very least, you’d be able to afford a flashlight.”
Emma let out a strangled yelp as her heart leapt straight to her throat, then she froze in the darkness. Except for the animals, she was supposed to be completely alone. Not so much as a valet or sous chef was to be on the premises for the next twelve days. Of course, the notebook did say that Cicero had a lengthy and amazing vocabulary. But he was at least two floors away. And she doubted he knew how to use the house speaker system. Armed with the notebook and not much else, Emma decided offense was the best defense. “Please state who you are and how you got in here. Security has already been alerted, so you’d best—”
Rich male laughter cut her off. “You must be the sitter.”
“Which must make you the burglar, then,” she shot back, nerves getting the better of her.
More laughter. Which, despite being sexy as all hell, did little to calm her down. Because, though she’d been joking, the idea that she’d been on the job for less than two hours and had already allowed a thief into the house was just a perverse enough thing that it would actually happen to her.
The large shadow moved closer and she was deep into the fight-or-flight debate when a soft click sounded and the hallway was illuminated with a series of crystal wall sconces. Emma’s first glance at her unexpected guest did little to balance her equilibrium.
Whoever he was, he beat her five-foot-nine height by a good half foot, which made the fight thing rather moot. Flight probably wasn’t going to get her very far, either. He had the kind of broad shoulders, tapered waist and well-built legs her defensive line coach dad would recruit in a blink, and charming rascal dimples topped by twinkling blue eyes her Irish mother would swoon over as she served him beef stew and biscuits.
Emma, on the other hand, had absolutely no idea what to do with him.