Welcome to First Chapter Friday. Every Friday during 2018, I’ll be sharing the first chapter of a book for your sampling pleasure. Some of the books will be mine, and some will be from guest colleagues and friends. It’s a way of introducing you both to books of mine you may not have had the pleasure of reading and to new authors. I’m pretty excited about it! – Barb
Love in the Shadows (From the Billionaire Matchmaker Anthology)
Billionaire Matchmaker, an anthology featuring me, Shirley Jump, Susan Meier and Jackie Braun, tells the story of Charlie the Matchmaking Jack Russell and four best friends and in my opinion, didn’t get nearly enough attention the first time around. Unlike typical anthologies, the stories are linked together, sort of like a Sisterhood of the Traveling Puppy. (At least that’s how we saw it.) My story, Love in the Shadows, wrapped up Charlie’s adventures, and introduces readers to the mysterious Mr. Bonaparte, Charlie’s owner.
You could at least look guilty.”
Jenny Travolini scowled her best glare, the one that usually made even the wisest of high school asses think twice. Big brown eyes and a tongue-lolling grin looked back.
No remorse whatsoever.
“Let’s hope your owner has a bigger conscience.”
Fat chance, seeing how Nicholas Bonaparte left his dog in the care of strangers for nearly a year. Nine months since the mysterious “Mr. B.” dropped Charlie into the lap of her friend Gabby Wilson without a word. Until yesterday, when an email announced his return. What kind of man adopted a pet only to ignore its existence?
A man who didn’t care, that’s who. With that thought, Jenny’s annoyance with the Jack Russell softened. “You were just looking for love, weren’t you fella?” Who was she to lay blame for him trying to find comfort any way he could? After all, people in glass houses…
Squatting, she gave the dog a scratch behind the ears. “Unfortunately, now it’s time to face the consequences.”
Because, she thought ruefully, there were always consequences. Warm beds turned cold, promises made in the dark proved empty, in the harsh light of day. Charlie nudged her hand seeking more attention. The little pooch didn’t realize his good fortune. Forgetting his mistakes as quickly as he made them, a fresh start for him was a simple as taking a nap. No need to pull up stakes and reinvent himself in order to face his reflection every morning.
Just then the door opened, and she found herself staring at a man whose scowl could best hers.
“You’ve come back,” he said, looking down on her and Charlie. His unenthusiastic reception didn’t faze the dog, who greeted him like old friend, barking and tugging on his leash.
“And you,” he said, turning his attention to Jenny, “are not Ms. Wilson.”
Jenny pushed aside the upwelling of insecurity his tone provoked. Rising, she wiped her palms on the front of her khaki skirt before extending her hand. “I’m Jenny Travolini,” she replied. “I volunteered to watch Charlie while Gabby settled in after her honeymoon.” No need mentioning the two previous volunteers were also settling in following their weddings. Somehow she doubted the man cared about the chain of love and marriage that brought Charlie to her doorstep. “Is Mr. Bonaparte available? I’d like to speak with him.”
“Mr. Bonaparte is a very busy man. He doesn’t meet with anyone without an appointment.”
How much did she want to bet those appointments weren’t so easy to get? “I promise this will only take a few minutes.”
She didn’t think it possible, but the man’s scowl grew more humorless. “As I said, Mr. Bonaparte does not meet with unscheduled visitors. I’ll let him know you brought St. Clair Osgood Charles back.” He reached for the leash.
Jenny moved the leash out of his reach. She had a bad feeling that if she relinquished custody, she’d never get an appointment to see the man, and since Nicholas Bonaparte’s carelessness was going to cost her a small fortune—at least it was a fortune to her—she wasn’t backing down without trying. “I am a scheduled visitor, aren’t I? Mr. Bonaparte did ask me to bring Charlie back.” Okay, technically, he asked Gabby, and he didn’t specify a date and time, but surely her arrival wasn’t completely unexpected.
A few bark-filled beats passed. Long enough for the hair to start rising on the back of her neck. Still, she held her ground. She was, after all, a high school teacher. One, if her students were to be believed, capable of being a humorless bitch. Surely she could handle a Mexican standoff.
To her vast relief, the butler blinked first. “Very well, I’ll see if he can squeeze you in. You can wait in the foyer.” He punctuated the words with a sigh, as though to say she hadn’t won so much as he was doing her a favor.
Either way, Jenny was inside the Bonaparte mansion.
The “foyer” as the butler called it, was a space the size of Jenny’s living room. As she surveyed the room’s looming collection of marble sculptures and antiques, Jenny couldn’t help but think of winter. Even the air felt colder. Goose bumps trailed up her sweater-covered arms. Meanwhile, Charlie was desperate to get free. “Being home doesn’t mean you’re off the hook,” she said, as she unhooked his leash. “Someone still has to pay for your indiscretion.” She swore Charlie grinned at her right before digging at the thick maroon carpet, the room’s lone contribution to color.
Being surrounded by opulence made her feel self-conscious, so while Charlie waged his war on the carpet, she made her way to a large gilt mirror that hung on the sidewall. For the first time since moving to Chandler’s Cove, she regretted her newly adapted disinterest in her appearance. Back in Chicago she wouldn’t be caught dead without full makeup. Now, her straight blond hair hung lifelessly around her face and her makeup, if you could call the little concealer and blush she wore that, had long worn off.
Quickly, she combed through the strands with her fingers then pinched her cheeks, only to have the butler walk in seconds later.
“I see we haven’t changed,” the butler said, spying Charlie. By this point, the terrier had grabbed hold of one corner of the carpet and pulled it back. “Still wild as ever. I’d hoped he’d slow down while Mr. Bonaparte was gone,” he said to Jenny.
“I’m sure he’ll calm down once the excitement of being home wears off,” she said. Of course, she was the same woman who thought Charlie had calmed down at her house, only to find he’d replaced furniture chewing with other activities.
They both stared at Charlie, who had moved on from digging the carpet to squirming across the surface on his back. “Perhaps,” he said. He turned his dour expression from Charlie’s latest gyrations to her. “Mr. Bonaparte will give you exactly five minutes. Follow me.”
As she followed the man down a long corridor that was as opulent and foreboding as the foyer, it dawned on Jenny that she could be one of the few, if not the only person in Chandler’s Cove, to meet Nicholas Bonaparte face-to-face. Whenever Charlie got in trouble, it was always a staff member who came to bail him out—never Mr. Bonaparte. Occasionally a check would arrive for one of the local causes—the library renovation, the new lacrosse field—but Bonaparte himself remained a mystery. Even when he summoned Gabby to his house back in January and asked her to dog-sit, he did so through the butler and a note. If not for the occasional, distant sightings of him walking the grounds after sunset, she’d think the man didn’t exist.
A pair of heavy oak doors blocked the end of the hallway. Before either human could reach for the handle, Charlie, who had apparently decided to join them, cut in front and began pawing for entrance.
The butler gave a weary sigh. “I should have realized you’d need to be first,” he said, granting him access.
Whatever Jenny had been expecting based on her brief tour so far, it wasn’t the dark, almost gothic atmosphere that greeted her. Heavy velvet curtains covered the windows, killing any trace of the sun. In fact, the only interior light at all came from a pair of laptops that sat atop a gigantic desk. Oddly enough, the monitors pointed outward. Jenny could see the squiggly lines of the screensavers. The angle turned everything else into colorless shadows.
Behind the desk stood the biggest shadow of them all: Nicholas Bonaparte.
Jenny jumped as the door shut behind her, locking her and Charlie inside. She waited for the shadow to come closer, but Bonaparte stayed where he was, shrouded by darkness.
“Cyrus said you wanted to see me.” His voice was low and rough like whiskey. Jenny felt another shiver as the sound wrapped around the base of her spine. “He said it was important.”
“Um, yes.” She swallowed her nerves. Five minutes wasn’t a long time; she could handle this. “It’s about Charlie. I’ve been watching him the past month.” She looked over at the dog who’d settled in a wingbacked chair by the unlit fireplace.
“What do you mean, you have been watching him? I left the dog in Gabrielle Wilson’s care.” He didn’t sound pleased with the change.
The last thing Jenny wanted was to get her friend in trouble. “I’m doing her a favor. She recently married, and I thought she and her husband might like some privacy, being newlyweds and all.”
“Hmmm.” Again, not pleased. “Well, if this is about payment, you need to talk with her. She was paid in advance.”
“I know. I’m here for a different reason.”
He sat down. Jenny found it interesting that the expansive desk managed to dwarf everything in the room except his figure. Meaning he was as tall and broad as his silhouette suggested. If standing toe to toe, he’d best her height by a foot or more. Or so she assumed. The glare off the computer screens made it impossible to see his features clearly.
If he was trying to use the shadows to intimidate her, it worked.
“It’s about Charlie. Are you aware the dog was never…” She paused, a blush creeping into her cheeks. Under the circumstances, spelling out words felt awkward. Unfortunately, Charlie had a habit of reacting very poorly to words he didn’t like. “He was never F-I-X-E-D.”
Silence. “Your point?” he asked finally.
“My point is that my Lulu’s pregnant.”
“And when you say Lulu, I assume we’re talking about a dog?”
“My dog. Lulu is my cavalier spaniel. I had planned to breed her.” High school English teachers only made so much and thanks to her misspent youth, she didn’t have a lot in the way of savings. “Now I have to wait another year. In the meantime, there’s the matter of veterinary care for her and the puppies, until they’re placed anyway.” She reached into her satchel and retrieved the paperwork she’d tucked neatly in there earlier. “Here’s the report from Dr. Gideon Roth.” When he didn’t reach out to take them, she dropped the papers on his desk. “I’m sure as a businessman, you can appreciate my predicament. Not only have I lost potential income but I have to pay for the cost of carrying and placing the unplanned litter.”
“And you expect me to compensate you for these costs.”
“It’s only fair, don’t you think?”
“The world is hardly fair, Ms. Travolini.”
Didn’t she know it? If life were fair, she wouldn’t have traveled down the road of her youth, endangering her physical well-being and leaving her self-respect in shatters.
“That may be true, but I’m hoping you will be.”
“I see.” A hand reached for the paperwork, and Jenny caught a glimpse of smooth, tight skin in the dim computer light. “All this says is that your dog is carrying a litter of puppies,” he said after a moment. “Doesn’t say anything about who sired them.”
“Doesn’t have to. Charlie sired them.”
“Assuming Charlie’s the only dog she mated with.”
Jenny bristled. He did not just poke that hornet’s nest, did he? “Are you suggesting Lulu’s some kind of doggy whore?” Although she knew it was impossible, she could almost hear his whiskeyed voice in her head.Like dog, like owner….
“What I’m suggesting is that taking Charlie from Ms. Wilson provides you with a convenient way to pay your vet bills.”
Terrific. So he was simply accusing her of trying to scam him. Like that was so much better. “Did you read the bill? Do you really think, if I were trying to extort money, I’d go for such a modest amount?”
“I think the best con artists know to be realistic, especially when first dipping into your wallet. Best not to take what anyone says at face value or believe a source too completely.
“I’ll tell you what.” He picked up a pen. “When your dog has her puppies, have the vet do a genetic test. If the bloodline matches, then we can talk reimbursement.”
With that, he bowed his head over his paperwork, essentially dismissing her.
Jenny seethed. It was like she was back in Chicago, being tossed aside by another so-called boyfriend who didn’t think she was good enough for a real relationship. She felt small and insulted and angry as hell. Only she wasn’t twenty years old anymore and she no longer let men take advantage. She’d send Nicholas Bonaparte his genetic test all right, along with the bill for it and Lulu’s care—and demand an apology with his reimbursement check.
As she turned to leave, she caught sight of Charlie sitting expectantly in the chair and felt a pang of regret. In spite of the craziness with Lulu, she’d grown fond of the little guy over the past month. He was basically a good dog who, while rambunctious, was also gentle and friendly and wanted nothing but someone to love him. She hated to see him pinning his hopes on the wrong person. How many times had she made the same bad mistake? Ten to one he found his way to Gabby’s studio before the week was out.
“No one would blame you if you did, pal.”
She hadn’t realized she’d spoken aloud, but now that she had, she decided to own her words. Someone should let Bonaparte know how neglectful he was being. How badly being tossed aside hurt. “I said, no one would blame him for running away from this place,” she repeated, louder this time. “You do know pets need more than food and water, don’t you?”
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” Bonaparte had unleashed her schoolteacher instincts. Now he would be forced to listen to the lecture. “They need attention and love and nurturing. They need to know they’re wanted. It’s only when they don’t get affection that they turn destructive. They tear up the house.” Or run around from man to man hoping to find love elsewhere. “Did you ever think that maybe the reason Charlie’s so out of control is because he wants you to notice him?”
When she finished, Bonaparte sat back in his chair, sending him deeper in the shadows. The movement was so deliberate, Jenny felt a spark of hope that her words sank in.
“Thank you for your insight.”
So much for making her point. He clearly found her insight unwelcome and unnecessary. Jenny gritted her teeth. Poor Charlie. How on earth was she supposed to leave him? This wasn’t a home; it was a marble mausoleum. He deserved better than to be stuck here with a grumpy butler and a hardhearted owner.
To hell with returning him today. “You know what?” She scooped the squirming Jack Russell into her arms. “If you want to wait until you get the genetic testing; you can wait for your dog, too. Come on, Charlie. Let’s get out of here.”
Love in the Shadows (as well as Billionaire Matchmaker) is available from the following: