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I'll Be Home for Christmas
By FERN MICHAELS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAndi Evans stared at the light switch. Should she turn it on or not? How many kilowatts of electricity did the fluorescent bulbs use? How would it translate onto her monthly bill? She risked a glance at the calendar; December 14, 1996, five days till the meter reader arrived. The hell with it, the animals needed light. She needed light. Somehow, someway, she'd find a way to pay the bill. On the other hand, maybe she should leave the premises dark so Mr. Peter King could break his leg in the dark. Breaking both legs would be even better. Like it was really going to happen.
Maybe she should read the letter again. She looked in the direction of her desk where she'd thrown it five days ago after she'd read it. She could see the end of the expensive cream-colored envelope sticking out among the stack of unpaid bills. "Guess what, Mr. Peter King, I'm not selling you my property. I told that to your forty-seven lawyers months ago." She started to cry then because it was all so hopeless.
They came from every direction, dogs, cats, puppies and kittens, clawing for her attention, their ears attuned to the strange sounds coming from the young woman who fed and bathed them and saw to their needs. They were strays nobody wanted. This was what she'd gone to veterinarian school for. She even had a sign that said she was Andrea Evans, D.V.M. Eleven patients in as many months. She was the new kid on the block, what did she expect? Because she was that new kid, people assumed they could just dump unwanted animals on her property. After all, what did a vet with only eleven patients have to do?
Andi thought about her student loans, the taxes on her house and three acres, the animals, the bills, the futility of it all. Why was she even fighting? Selling her property would net her a nice tidy sum. She could pay off her loans, go to work for a vet clinic, get a condo someplace and ... what would happen to her animals if she did that? She wailed louder, the dogs and cats clambering at her feet.
"Enough!" a voice roared.
Tails swished furiously; Gertie always brought soup bones and catnip. Andi watched as she doled them out, something for everyone. She blew her nose. "I think they love you more than they love me."
"They love what I bring them. I'd like a cup of tea if you have any. It's nasty out there. It might snow before nightfall."
"Where are you sleeping tonight, Gertie?"
"Under the railroad trestle with my friends. Being homeless doesn't give me many choices."
"You're welcome to stay here, Gertie. I told you the cot is yours anytime you want it. I'll even make you breakfast. Did you eat today?"
"Later. I have something for you. Call it an early Christmas present. I couldn't wait to get here to give it to you." Gertie hiked up several layers of clothing to her long underwear where she'd sewn a pocket. She withdrew a thick wad of bills. "We found this four weeks ago. There it was, this big wad of money laying right in the street late at night. Two thousand dollars, Andi. We want you to have it. We watched in the papers, asked the police, no one claimed it. A whole month we waited, and no one claimed it. It's probably drug money, but them animals of yours don't know that. Better to be spent on them than on some drug pusher. Doncha be telling me no now."
"Oh, Gertie, I wouldn't dream of saying no. Did you find it in Plainfield?"
"Right there on Front Street, big as life."
Andi hugged the old woman who always smelled of lily of the valley. She could never figure out why that was. Gertie had to be at least seventy-five, but a young seventy-five as she put it. She was skinny and scrawny, but it was hard to tell with the many layers of clothing she wore. Her shoes were run-down, her gloves had holes in the fingers and her knit cap reeked of mothballs. For a woman her age she had dewy skin, pink cheeks, few wrinkles and the brightest, bluest eyes Andi had ever seen. "Did you walk all the way from Plainfield, Gertie?"
Gertie's head bobbed up and down. "Scotch Plains ain't that far. I left my buggie outside."
Translated, that meant all of Gertie's worldly possessions were in an Acme shopping cart outside Andi's clinic.
"Here's your tea, Gertie, strong and black, just the way you like it. It's almost Christmas; are you going to call your children? You should, they must be worried sick."
"What, so they can slap me in a nursing home? Oh, no, I like things just the way they are. I'm spending Christmas with my friends. Now, why were you bawling like that?"
Andi pointed to her desk. "Unpaid bills. And a letter from Mr. Peter King. He's that guy I told you about. His forty-seven lawyers couldn't bend me, so I guess they're sending in the first string now. He's coming here at four-thirty."
"Here?" Gertie sputtered, the teacup almost falling from her hand.
"Yes. Maybe he's going to make a final offer. Or, perhaps he thinks he can intimidate me. This property has been in my family for over a hundred years. I'm not selling it to some lipstick mogul. What does a man know about lipstick anyway? Who cares if he's one of the biggest cosmetic manufacturers on the East Coast. I don't even wear lipstick. These lips are as kissable as they're going to get, and his greasy product isn't going to change my mind."
"I really need to be going now, Andi. So, you'll tell him no."
"Gertie, look around you. What would you do if you were me? What's so special about this piece of property? Let him go to Fanwood, anywhere but here. Well?"
"Location is everything. This is prime. Zoning has to be just right, and you, my dear, are zoned for his needs. I'd tell him to go fly a kite," Gertie said smartly. "I hear a truck. Lookee here, Andi, Wishnitz is here with your dog food."
"I didn't order any dog food."
"You better tell him that then, 'cause the man's unloading big bags of it. I'll see you tomorrow. Greasy, huh?"
"Yeah. Gertie, I wish you'd stay; it's getting awfully cold outside. Thanks for the money. Tell your friends I'm grateful. You be careful now."
"Hey, I didn't order dog food," she said to the driver.
"Bill says it's a gift. Five hundred pounds of Pedigree dog food, sixteen cases of cat food and two bags of birdseed. Sign here?"
"Who sent it?"
"Don't know, ma'am, I'm just the driver. Call the store. Where do you want this?"
"Around the back."
Andi called the feed store to be sure there was no mistake. "Are you telling me some anonymous person just walked into your store and paid for all this? It's a fortune in dog and cat food. No name at all? All right, thanks."
A beagle named Annabelle pawed Andi's leg. "I know, time for supper and a little run. Okay, everybody SIT! You know the drill, about face; march in an orderly fashion to the pen area. Stop when you get to the gate and go to your assigned dishes. You know which ones are yours. No cheating, Harriet," she said to a fat white cat who eyed her disdainfully. "I'm counting to three, and when the whistle blows, GO! That's really good, you guys are getting the hang of it. Okay, here it comes, extra today thanks to our Good Samaritan, whoever she or he might be."
"Bravo! If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. There must be thirty dogs and cats here."
"Thirty-six to be exact. And you are?" Andi looked at her watch.
"Peter King. You must be Andrea Evans."
"Dr. Evans. How did you get in here? The dogs didn't bark." Andi's voice was suspicious, her eyes wary. "I'm busy right now, and you're forty-five minutes early, Mr. King. I can't deal with you now. You need to go back to the office or come back another day." The wariness in her eyes changed to amusement when she noticed Cedric, a Dalmatian, lift his leg to pee on Peter King's exquisitely polished Brooks Brothers loafers.
The lipstick mogul, as Andi referred to him, eyed his shoe in dismay. He shook it off and said, "You might be right. I'll be in the waiting room."
Andi raised her head from the sack of dog food to stare at the tall man dwarfing her. Thirty-six or -seven, brown eyes, brown unruly hair with a tight curl, strong features, handsome, muscular, unmarried: no ring on his finger. Sharply dressed. Pristine white shirt, bold, expensive tie. Very well put together. She wondered how many lipsticks he had to sell to buy his outfit. She debated asking until she remembered how she looked. Instead she said, "You remind me of someone."
"A lot of people say that, but they can never come up with who it is." He started for the waiting room.
"It will come to me sooner or later." Andi ladled out food, the dogs waiting patiently until all the dishes were full. "Okay, guys, go for it!" When the animals finished eating, Andi let them out into their individual runs. "Twenty minutes. When you hear the buzzer, boogie on in here," she called.
Andi took her time stacking the dog bowls in the stainless steel sink full of soapy water. She'd said she was busy. Busy meant she had to wash and dry the dishes now to take up time. As she washed and dried the bowls, her eyes kept going to the mirror over the sink. She looked worse than a mess. She had on absolutely no makeup, her blond hair was frizzy, her sweatshirt was stained and one of her sneakers had a glob of poop on the heel. She cleaned off her shoe, then stacked the dishes for the following day. "When I'm slicked up, I can look as good as he does," she hissed to the animals and let the dogs into their pens. The beagle threw her head back and howled.
"I have five minutes, Mr. King. I told your forty-seven lawyers I'm not selling. What part of 'no' don't you understand?"
"The part about the forty-seven lawyers. I only have two. I think you mean forty-seven letters."
"I thought perhaps I could take you out to dinner ... and we could ... discuss the pros and cons of selling your property." He smiled. She saw dimples and magnificent white teeth. All in a row like matched pearls.
"Save your money, Mr. King. Dinner will not sway my decision. You know what else, I don't even like your lipstick. It's greasy. The colors are abominable. The names you've given the lipsticks are so ridiculous they're ludicrous. Raspberry Cheese Louise. Come onnnnn." At his blank look she said, "I worked at a cosmetic counter to put myself through college and vet school."
"No, you don't, but that's okay. Time's up, Mr. King."
"Three hundred and fifty thousand, Dr. Evans. You could relocate."
Andi felt her knees go weak on her. "Sorry, Mr. King."
"Five hundred thousand and that's as high as I can go. It's a take it or leave it offer. It's on the table right now. When I walk out of here it goes with me."
She might have seriously considered the offer if the beagle hadn't chosen that moment to howl. "I really have to go, Mr. King. That's Annabelle howling. She has arthritis and it's time for her medication." She must be out of her mind to turn down half a million dollars. Annabelle howled again.
"I didn't know dogs got arthritis."
"They get a lot of things, Mr. King. They develop heart trouble; they get cancer, cataracts, prostate problems, all manner of things. Do you really think us humans have a lock on disease? This is the only home those animals know. No one else wanted them, so I took them in. My father and his father before him owned this kennel. It's my home and their home."
"Wait, hear me out. You could buy a new, modern facility with the money I'm willing to pay you. This is pretty antiquated. Your wood's rotten, your pens are rusty, your concrete is cracked. You're way past being a fixer-upper. You could get modern equipment. If you want my opinion, I think you're being selfish. You're thinking of yourself, not the animals. The past is past; you can't bring it back, nor should you want to. I'll leave my offer on the table till Friday. Give it some thought, sleep on it. If your decision is still no on Friday, I won't bother you again. I'll even raise my price to $750,000. I'm not trying to cheat you."
Andi snorted. "Of course not," she said sarcastically, "that's why you started off at $200,000 and now you're up to $750,000. I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, Mr. King. Let's cut to the chase. What's your absolute final offer?"
It was Peter King's turn to stare warily at the young doctor in front of him. His grandmother would love her. Sadie would say she had grit and spunk. Uhhuh. "A million," he said hoarsely.
"That's as in acre, right? I have a little over three acres. Closer to four than three."
King's jaw dropped. Annabelle howled again. "You want three million dollars for this ... hovel?"
"No. Three plus million for the land. You're right, it is a hovel; but it's my home and the home of those animals. I sweated my ass off to keep this property and work my way through school. What do you know about work, Mr. Lipstick? Hell, I could make up a batch of that stuff you peddle for eight bucks a pop right here in the kitchen. All I need is my chemistry book. Get the hell off my property and don't come back unless you have three million plus dollars in your hand. You better get going before it really starts to snow and you ruin those fancy three-hundred-dollar Brooks Brothers shoes."
"Your damn dog already ruined them."
"Send me a bill!" Andi shouted as she pushed him through the door and then slammed it shut. She turned the dead bolt before she raced back to the animals. She dusted her hands dramatically for the animals' benefit before she started to cry. The animals crept from their cages that had no doors, to circle her, licking and pawing at her tear-filled face. She hiccupped and denounced all men who sold lipstick. "If he comes up with three million plus bucks, we're outta here. Then we'll have choices; we can stay here in New Jersey, head south or north, wherever we can get the best deal. Hamburger and tuna for you guys and steak for me. We'll ask Gertie to go with us. I'm done crying now. You can go back to sleep. Come on, Annabelle, time for your pill."
Andi scooped up the pile of bills on her desk to carry them into the house. With the two thousand dollars from Gertie and the dog and cat food, she could last until the end of January, and then she'd be right back where she was just a few hours ago. Three million plus dollars was a lot of money. So was $750,000. Scrap that, he'd said a cool million. Times three. At eight bucks a tube, how many lipsticks would the kissing king need to sell? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 375,000. Darn, she should have said two million an acre.
It might be a wonderful Christmas after all.
Peter King slid his metallic card into the slot and waited for the huge grilled gate to the underground garage of his grandmother's high-rise to open. Tonight was his Friday night obligatory dinner with his grandmother. A dinner he always enjoyed and even looked forward to. He adored his seventy-five-year-old grandmother who was the president of King Cosmetics. He shuddered when he thought of what she would say to Andrea Evans's price. She'd probably go ballistic and throw her salmon, Friday night's dinner, across the room. At which point, Hannah the cat would eat it all and then puke on the Persian carpet. He shuddered again. Three million dollars. Actually, it would be more than three million. The property on Cooper River Road was closer to four acres. He had two hard choices: pay it or forget it.
Who in the hell was that wise-ass girl whose dog peed on his shoe? Where did she get off booting him out the door. Hell, she'd pushed him, shoved him. She probably didn't weigh more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. He took a few seconds to mentally envision that hundred-pound body naked. Aaahh. With some King Cosmetics she'd be a real looker. And she hated his guts.
"Hey, Sadie, I'm here," Peter called from the foyer. He'd called his grandmother Sadie from the time he was a little boy. She allowed it because she said it made her feel younger.
"Peter, you're early. Good, we can have a drink by the fire. Hannah's already there waiting for us. She's not feeling well." Sadie's voice turned fretful. "I don't want her going before me. She's such wonderful company. Look at her, she's just lying there. I tried to tempt her with salmon before and she wouldn't touch it. She won't even let me hold her."
Peter's stomach started to churn. If anything happened to Hannah, he knew his grandmother would take to her bed and not get up. He hunched down and held out his hand. Hannah hissed and snarled. "That's not like her. Did you take her to the vet?"
Sadie snorted "He went skiing in Aspen. I don't much care for all those fancy vets who have banker's hours and who don't give a damn. Hannah is too precious to trust to just anybody. Let's sit and have a drink and watch her. How did your meeting go with Dr. Evans?"
Excerpted from I'll Be Home for Christmas by FERN MICHAELS Copyright © 2010 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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