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At thirty-two, Will Desmond had traveled the world, created a successful business and been with beautiful and accomplished womensometimes simultaneouslybut he'd never had a dog. Until now.
Buster, an odd blending of Jack Russell terrier and dachshund, was six months old and ill-behaved, but he was the kind of cute that made women stop in the middle of shopping to stare, to coo. It wouldn't have shocked Will if a mere touch to Buster's little brown head kick-started ovulation. And if attracting women had been his goal, Will would have been a very happy man. But he needed Buster for something else. Something far less pleasant.
Buster, the adorable puppy with the big amber eyes, was Will's shill.
There was still a great deal to discover before the real work would begin. A lot of questions that needed answering. Why Hush, for example.
The hotel was as beautiful as it was controversial. A place no mother would send her daughter. Filled with celebrities, sex and scandal, according to the billboards, the tabloids, the ads in glossy magazines.
He hadn't expected it to be this classy.
Art deco influences led the way to soft, cool luxury. Everything in the lobby was designed to welcome, to make the guest feel special and pampered. Even the staff had that beautiful but not unattainable aura about them, from the concierge to the bartender.
It was a hot spot for the young and wealthy. So what the hell was Drina doing here? Of all the hotels in New York, she'd picked Hush? It didn't add up. Yet.
With Buster in his carrier, Will cruised through the bar, Erotique, liking the soft jazz that played in the background and the way the tables offered a nice place to sitand talk, instead of screaming over rock music. He thought about getting himself a cognac, but he still had to register, and besides, it was only five-thirty, and he hadn't had dinner.
Instead, he studied the clientele. There wasn't a slacker in the bunch. Designer labels, two-hundred-dollar haircuts, high-paying jobs. There were more Rolexes per table than he'd seen since he'd stayed at the Pierre. Although this crowd was a lot younger.
There'd been a big article about Hush in the papers a couple of months ago. A paparazzo had been murdered in the basement nightclub and a film mogul had gone down, but Will couldn't remember the details. He'd have to look it up. What he did remember was reading about the amenities that came with every room. An armoire filled with sex toys, costumes, videos. Everything a true hedonist could wish for, and then some. Too bad he was here on business.
It was time to check in. Behind the glossy ebony reservation desk were two attractive staffers, both wearing the signature black tuxedos with pink bow ties. The pink neon Hush on the wall behind them looked surprisingly sleek. As polished as the hotel's image.
"Reservation for Desmond."
Charlene, who had amazing red hair and the complexion to go with it, smiled as she looked him up on the computer. She smiled wider when he put Buster on the counter and she got a glimpse of the charmer inside the box.
The downside was that it took about ten minutes to get his key, to get directions to PetQuarters, the hotel within the hotel that catered to pampered pets, and to pry Buster away from not only Charlene, but also Kennedy, Blake and Mia, all of whom were equally attractive and bedazzled by the mighty power of the adorable puppy.
Finally, it was just him, Buster and his rolling luggage in the elevator, along with a couple of worker bees from Dynatech who, from the looks of things, couldn't wait to jump each other's bones. But they got off on eight.
The elevator stopped three more times before reaching the fourteenth floor, and it was gratifying that not all of the appreciative glances from the lady passengers were directed at Buster.
He'd have to come back to Hush another time. When he had nothing on his mind but R & R.
Once inside the suite, Hush surprised him yet again. They'd gotten the details just right, from the extravagantly stocked bar to the art deco, to the linens. It wasn't just first class, but five-star.
He recognized the artist of the painting over the hearth. He'd wager it would go for fifty thousand, at least.
Unable to help himself, he opened the legendary armoire in the bedroom. It was a cornucopia of sexual temptations, all neatly packaged and presented with candor. A variety of condoms led the way, with a soupçon of Kama Sutra and a bit of leather thrown in for good measure.
If only he'd had someone to share it with, this trip to Hush might not be such a chore. Someone other than Buster.
Closing the armoire, he quickly set up his laptop and did a sweep of his e-mail. All of it could wait, at least until tonight. Then he called down to the front desk.
"Drina Dalakis, please. She's a guest."
"One moment, sir."
He waited, glanced at his watch. The call rang through but he hung up before she could answer.
She was at the hotel, all right. Checked in under her own name. Will bit back a curse as he unpacked his few things, checked out the suite's bathroom, then got out all the paperwork he'd need for PetQuarters.
The dog was whining a bit and even though Will needed to check his phone messages he didn't have much time left before the pet center would close.
"Come on, Buster," he said as he got the carrier from the floor. "Just keep on being adorable, kid, and you and I will get along just fine."
WITH LIGHTNING purring around her neck, Jessie pressed up against her right side, Goober on the left and the Kid on her lap, Mercy Jones was finally ready to start the meeting. It would be brief, as PetQuarters was jumping.
"Here's the deal," she said, one hand scratching Jessie's butt, the other stroking the Kid. "We've hit critical mass with daily clients. So we're going to have to do four walks a day."
SomeoneEddy, she thoughtmoaned, but that's because Eddy took out the big dogs. Everyone else seemed pleased. "I can't tell you guys how much I appreciate your hard work over the last few months. We've tripled our revenue, and let me tell you, the powers are pleased." She looked down into the Kid's face. "And so are our guests."
Her gaze went back to her people. It still felt odd to be in charge. She was used to being the one in the back. The one who did all the work no one wanted to do. And then, just because she happened to be at the animal rescue shelter on that December night
"Andrew, did you figure out what was going on with the pool?"
"It's fixed. The filter had gotten screwed up, but Lloyd replaced it."
"Great. Anything else we need to discuss while I'm here?"
Alexis, who was a young apprentice, a volunteer who hoped to someday become a pet concierge in her own right, raised her hand.
"Yeah?" Mercy said, switching off her petting hands.
"Be on the lookout for a couple of leashes. Charlie's at it again."
Mercy shook her head. She needed to figure out a way to get Charlie, an otherwise wonderful Lab/bull terrier mix, to stop stealing and hiding anything he took a fancy to. First it was dog bowls. Then chewies, then squeaky toys. One of these days he was going to take the wrong thing from the wrong dog, and it wouldn't be pretty. "Thanks, Alexis. We'll all watch out."
"Mercy, can we talk about the fridge"
At the mention of the word, half the crew groaned.
Chrissy, who was on permanent staff, put her hands on her hips. "Come on, people. Even the dogs, except for Charlie, don't steal food from each other. If the bag says Chrissy, it means Chrissy."
"She's right." Mercy shifted on the big mat, causing Lightning, a gorgeous tabby cat who loved nothing more than masquerading as a scarf, to look up. "You know all of you are welcome to go to the employee canteen on your lunch breaks. I know it's a hike, but the food is so good. You really should leave poor Chrissy's sandwiches alone."
"It's just that her sandwiches are so good," Gilly said, and that comment got a laugh. From everyone but Chrissy.
"Anything else?" Mercy put the Kid on the floor, then extricated herself from beneath her doggy blanket. She didn't even bother to swipe at the hair all over her coat and pants. There was simply no escape.
"I'd be willing to pay if someone, anyone, can figure out how to get Pumpkin to shut up."
That was Lauren, an apprentice.
Mercy saw she was smiling. Kind of. That wouldn't do. "Pumpkin is just one of those pooches," she said. "Chihuahuas are highly strung, nervous dogs. The only power they have is their bark. But there's something you can try, Lauren. You can go in with her, in her suite, and with some patience and a real sense of calm, Pumpkin might surprise you. I'm betting she'll respond to an air of tranquility. Maybe some soft music. Let her sniff you, and get all the barking out of her system. That's without censure, mind you. Let the barking wash over you, and soon, she'll see that you won't be intimidated."
Mercy kept her eyes on the girl. She was in her mid-twenties and loved animals, but she was teetering on the edge. She wasn't accustomed to such hard work, and she might think of this as a punishment instead of a lesson.
"I'll give it a try," she said, her smile still a bit rueful.
"Great. Let me know how it works out."
"Mercy, come to the front desk, please."
The call over the PetQuarters loudspeaker, which actually wasn't very loud, finished the meeting, which was all right with Mercy. Dogs needed walking, grooming, massages, playtime. There were still about fifteen minutes to go until the front desk would shut down to new guests, but that only heralded the beginning of night service for all their overnight pets. Never a dull moment at PetQuarters.
With Lightning purring in her ear, Mercy went to the front desk, which was separated from the main facility by a big door with a No Admittance warning. The desk itself was where the human business of PetQuarters took place. Retail sales of highly overpriced, brand name pet toys and treats. Videos, training books, all manner of items the wealthy denizens of Hush could buy were always at the ready. Behind the desk was the schedule of dogs and workers, the computer files, the dossiers on each and every pet. It was a large enterprise, and because of Mercy, getting larger each day.
Once she'd closed the door behind her, Mercy saw why she'd been called. Mrs. Kenin, Chance's mom, was waiting, and she didn't look happy.
Mercy's throat tightened and her hand went to Light-ning's soft fur. "Hello, Mrs. Kenin."
"Miss Smith, is it?"
"Yes, well. Chance was very upset last night. He didn't sleep at all well, and he piddled where he shouldn't have."
Mercy loved her job more than anything in the world. All except this part. Give her the biggest, roughest, toughest dog in the world, and Mercy would find a way to its heart, but people? Guests? That was what she dreaded.
She'd warned them. Piper Devon, the hotel's owner, Janice Foster, the GM. Mercy had been completely honest from the beginning, letting them know that her people skills pretty much sucked. But they'd assured her she'd learn. She'd become as skilled with the people as she was with their pets. So far, it hadn't worked out very well.
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I'm going to get Gilly. She was watching Chance yesterday and if something happened, she'll know."
Her about-face was quick enough that Mrs. Kenin's objections were cut off by the door. Gilly, Mercy's closest friend, was wonderful with the guests. She'd handle the situation with grace and aplomb.
Gilly was busy, of course. She was mopping the small dog pen. Chance, a very spoiled Lhasa Apso, was on a comfy pillow, happily chewing on a stuffed mouse.
After Mercy filled Gilly in, they swapped places.
Mercy much preferred mopping up pee to appeasing a client, and she sighed happily as she got down to work.
Lightning stretched, her signal to be let down. Mercy put her on the floor outside the pen, and the large cat meandered toward Mercy's office, where she would flop down and rest until the urge to perch on a warm neck struck once more.
Mercy headed for the grooming room, still pleased about the growing popularity of PetQuarters as the animal destination for those who lived and worked in midtown Manhattan, and not just as a pet hotel for those who stayed at Hush.
Soon, perhaps even this year, there would be enough profit to warrant the expansion into the building next door. And that would mean that Mercy would earn her bonus. And that would mean she could finally move out of the hellhole of her apartment, a notion that was becoming more and more urgent as each day passed.