It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman teetering on the verge of thirty is in want of a husband. Miss Elizabeth Scott, age twenty-nine years and three hundred sixty-four days, was a notable exception to this rule. Pressure from her mother notwithstanding, Elizabeth was quite content with her single status. More so in recent weeks, perhaps, than ever before. There was something about capturing the unwanted attention of a very powerful, very married man who couldn't take no for an answer that made her appreciate the unconditional love of her dog in an entirely new way.
Dogs were loyal.
Dogs didn't get people fired.
Dogs understood the word no.
Which was why spending her birthday weekend at a dog show off the Jersey Turnpike seemed like a little slice of heaven. Was there a better way to forget that her life was virtually falling apart at the seams than to spend two pleasurable days grooming her Cavalier King Charles spaniel to perfection and winning a handful of shiny satin ribbons?
Elizabeth would consider it the perfect weekend, even without the ribbons. She smiled at Bliss, who blinked up at her with wide, melting eyes from her position on the grooming table. Bliss stood on her hind legs, craned her neck and swiped Elizabeth's cheek with a puppy kiss. She loved the dog, almost too much. Definitely too much, according to her sister Jenna.
"Do you know what this reminds me of?" Jenna nodded toward Bliss and smirked. "That big Barbie head you got for Christmas when you were nine. Remember? She had the hair that you could set in rollers and that gaudy blue eye shadow."
"Of course I remember." Elizabeth spritzed Bliss's ears with volumizing spray. "LuLu."
"Oh, good grief. I forgot you named it that." Jenna took a giant swig of her Starbucks and shook her head. "Who renames Barbie?"
"I do." Elizabeth eyed the latte with envy. Starbucks was exactly the type of guilty pleasure unemployed teachers—even temporarily unemployed ones like herself—couldn't afford. So were dog-show entry fees, for that matter. She planned on making this one count.
"Seriously. It's basically the same thing. The brushing, the blow-drying." Jenna picked up a pair of thinning shears and examined them until Elizabeth plucked them from her fingers. Those thinning shears had cost her two full days' pay.
Back when she was employed.
You're still employed. It's only a one-week suspension. Think of it as a vacation, albeit a forced vacation that you can in no way afford.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, wielded the shears over the top of Bliss's head and snipped away a few wisps of downy puppy fuzz. She drew back to take a final look. "Perfect."
Bliss yipped in agreement, and Jenna rolled her eyes. "You should have been a hairdresser, sis, instead of a teacher. I'm afraid you chose the wrong profession."
No sooner had the words left her mouth than she bit her lip to silence herself. "I'm so sorry. Poor choice of words."
Elizabeth pasted on a smile. "Forget it."
A look of chagrin crossed Jenna's features. At least Elizabeth hoped it was chagrin and not pity. "I'm an idiot. Don't pay any attention to me. You're a great teacher. The best. This whole 'administrative leave' thing is temporary. You'll have your job back before you know it. I'm an idiot, and that Grant Markham is a dog."
"Don't say that." Elizabeth pulled the grooming smock over her head and smoothed down the front of her dress. "It's an insult to dogs."
"Right." Jenna winced. "I want to make it up to you. How about a latte? My treat, birthday girl."
Elizabeth slid Bliss's show lead around her neck. If Jenna left now for Starbucks, she'd miss seeing Bliss in the ring. Not that Jenna would really mind. She didn't much care for dog shows. Elizabeth knew she'd only come because she was worried about her sister spending her birthday weekend alone. Trying to explain that she wasn't alone—she had Bliss, after all—had only made her more determined.
Sweet Jenna. Always the protective older sister.
"That would be great." Elizabeth tucked Bliss under her arm. "Pumpkin Spice. Skinny."
"I'm ordering it with whip. It's your birthday. Live a little." Jenna slung her purse over her shoulder and grinned as she disappeared through the maze of camping chairs and portable tables in the crowded grooming area of the dog show.
Elizabeth gave Bliss a little squeeze. "Just you and me, girl. Are you ready? It's showtime."
The area ringside was abuzz with nervous energy, even more so than usual. Bliss was Elizabeth's first show dog and, at nine months old, very much a puppy. They were perfectly matched in their inexperience, so butterflies were still an unquestionable fact of life. Ordinarily, the other handlers seemed to take everything in stride. Today, however, everyone was wide-eyed with concern and clustered in groups of two or three.
An eerie silence had fallen over the area around ring 5. Even the dogs had stopped barking.
Elizabeth tightened her grip on Bliss and sidled up next to one of the small groups of exhibitors who were busy whispering and furrowing their brows. "What's going on?"
"There's been a judging change." A round-faced woman with a mass of blond curls wound the length of her tricolor Cavalier's show lead around her fingers until her fingertips turned white.
"A judging change?" Elizabeth's gaze darted to the ring, but it was empty.
"Yes. Some visiting judge we've never heard of before."
Another of the exhibitors nodded and murmured behind her hand. "Rumor has it he's from England."
Elizabeth couldn't help but smile. Why were they whispering? The judge, whoever he was, wasn't even there yet. For once she was relieved to be the new kid on the block. She wasn't familiar enough with the judges to care one way or another if there was a judging change.
Simple curiosity propelled her to the giant white clipboard posted at the steward's table beside the entrance to the ring. She glanced at the top of the board, where the scheduled judge's name had been marked through with a bold, black line. Directly beneath it, simple block letters spelled out the name of the replacement.
Mr. Donovan Darcy.
Elizabeth lifted a brow.
Donovan Darcy. What kind of name is that?
A rich one, by the sound of it.
Plumbers and auto mechanics didn't name their kids Donovan. Elizabeth had worked at one of the most prestigious private schools in Manhattan long enough to learn a thing or two about blue bloods. Thus she knew good and well that a man named Donovan Darcy wouldn't have dirt under his fingernails.
She scrunched her face in disgust. Grant Markham had finely manicured hands, but that didn't make him any less dirty.
"Donovan Darcy" came a clipped British whisper over her shoulder. "Aren't we lucky?"
Elizabeth turned around to find the voice belonged to an older woman decked out in a matching tweed skirt and jacket. Rather than leading a dog around on a leash, she pushed a stack of four crates on wheels. Scruffy terrier faces peered out from the wire doors. The kind smile that reached all the way to the woman's eyes told Elizabeth her comment was sincere.
She smiled back. "Lucky? How so?"
"He's a breeder judge. His dogs are legendary. Haven't you heard of Chadwicke Kennels? The big country estate out in Derbyshire?" She didn't wait for an answer, just shook her head and made a few clucking noises before continuing. "What am I thinking? Of course you haven't. This is America. I keep forgetting."
Elizabeth could only laugh. "You keep forgetting?"
"Yes." She waved a hand toward a red-faced man organizing a stack of armbands at a grooming table. "My husband's company expanded last year. For fourteen months now we've been flitting back and forth between home and America. I'm afraid it's beginning to wear me down. Sometimes I forget where I am entirely."
"I hate to break it to you, but you're in New Jersey." Elizabeth offered her hand. "I'm Elizabeth."
"Sue. Sue Barrow." She nodded toward her husband, still at the grooming table, huffing and puffing while struggling with a wad of rubber bands. "And that's my dear Alan. Poor thing. He's not terribly fond of dog shows."
Elizabeth nodded her understanding. Alan looked about as thrilled to be there as Jenna had before she'd made her escape to Starbucks.
She swiveled her gaze back to the posted judging schedule. "So, what were you saying about this mysterious Mr. Darcy?"
"Oh, yes." A faint flush rose to Sue's cheeks. "He's wonderful. His kennel has excellent bloodlines."
For some reason, Elizabeth doubted that rosy glow had much to do with his kennel's bloodlines. "What kind of dogs does he breed? Terriers?"
Sue's flush intensified. She fanned herself with a copy of the show catalog. "He's here."
A tall gentleman with a ramrod-straight spine strode past them and into the ring. His presence brought with it a flutter to Elizabeth's heart. She tightened her grip on Bliss's leash and tried to tell herself it was a simple case of preshow jitters. Bliss looked up at her with a crease in her furry brow. Even the dog seemed to know Elizabeth was kidding herself.
Mr. Darcy was handsome. Sweaty-palms, forget-howto-breathe handsome. Apparently, his dogs weren't the on...