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Gracie Lawson gritted her teeth and did what she had to do. She pinned a friendly smile on her face and stepped through the doorway into the hotel lobby.
There was no way to get around what was coming. She'd known it since first making the commitment. It will be good for me, she told herself for the thousandth time in the last six weeks. And for the thousandth time her knees quivered.
It was still very early in the morning, and the majority of the guests at Timberlake Lodge had yet to stir. Only the first of the behind-the-scenes workers of the dog show had started to assemble. Like her, most were from the surrounding area and were commuting from their homes.
''Gracie, hi! Over here!'' a woman called, waving from across the lobby.
Gracie approached the small group of people.
''You haven't talked with Diane this morning, have you?'' someone asked.
''Diane? No,'' Gracie replied.
''She was supposed to be here a half hour ago to meet with Eileen, and she hasn't ''
The elevator doors opened and a nicely dressed couple stepped out. Gracie saw them, then looked away quickly, her heart pounding. The man nearest her continued to talk, but Gracie no longer followed his words. She was aware only of Raymond and claudette wilson walking toward them and then, barely a few steps away, veering off down the hall that led to the restaurant. They hadn't seen her!
Raymond and Claudette Paul's closest friends and fellow dog handlers. She hadn't seen them in the last year and a half, not since she'd stopped attending competitions. Not since the last time she'd put in an appearance and been the object of such pity.
That was the main problem about being part of a tightly knit world. Everyone knew everyone else, and when something bad happened, it got around. Tyler's gossips had nothing on the regulars of the dog-show circuit. Particularly when the ''something bad'' involved a well-known breeder and one of the top dog handlers in the country.
''Oh! Here she comes! Here she comes! Diane!'' Relieved exclamations burst from the people around Gracie.
Diane Jennings strode across the lobby to join them, her square, rather plain face beaming good-naturedly. ''Sorry I'm late,'' she said. ''A last-minute panic at home. Has everyone had breakfast who wants it? Since many of you are novices to large competitions, I'll warn you now-it's going to be a long time until lunch! Gracie can verify that.'' She sent a huge smile toward Gracie.
''That's right,'' Gracie agreed, trying to speak around the lump in her throat.
She wished she hadn't agreed to do this! She wasn't ready yet. Not that it would be the full complement of competitors. This was a regional specialty show sponsored by the Sugar Creek Poodle Club and was for poodles only. It wasn't an all-breed show, where she would be in danger of running into Paul. If that had been a possibility, she wouldn't have
She jumped when Diane Jennings, the club's president, touched her arm. The others had moved off, eager to take up their assignments.
Diane looked at her, her expression serious. ''If you don't want to do this, Gracie, don't. I understand.''
''No, it's all right. I'm all right.''
Diane sighed. ''You shouldn't be the one to hide away. It wasn't your fault. It was his.''
''It was a misunderstanding,'' Gracie said tightly. ''Anyway, it's been two years.''
Before Diane could say anything more, one of her minions returned to claim her. ''Diane, I need you to tell me again ''
Gracie used the interruption to break away. She hurried back across the lobby and slipped gratefully into the nicely appointed women's room she knew was there from her weeks of preliminary work helping to coordinate the competition.
Just her luck, she thought, she'd probably run into Sheilie. And she'd have to make up some kind of explanation to her niece about why she looked so shaken. But the room was empty except for a desk clerk, who smiled distractedly at her before hurrying back to her post.
Gracie slumped into one of the chintz-covered chairs in the powder area and waited for her nerves to calm down.
Sheilie didn't know about Paul. Not by name. Gracie had told her only that she'd been involved with someone for a number of years and that two years ago they'd parted. She hadn't told her why, or that it had come as much of a shock to her as it had to the rest of the dog-show world. Sheila would probably learn more if she overheard any of the circuit regulars talking, but there was an equal chance she wouldn't hear a thing. Hotel managers were usually kept busy running the hotel.
A short time later Gracie made herself go to the mirror, where she straightened her skirt and blouse and lightly fluffed her short blond hair. She could still see the strain in her face, but once again she forced herself to smile, and the change was miraculous. She looked bright and happy and completely in control.
From the moment she'd heard that Raymond and Claudette were scheduled to attend the event-poodles were their specialty-she'd been bracing herself to see them, to talk to them. They were nice people. But their loyalty, naturally, went to Paul.
Paul who'd shocked her into near seclusion two years before when he'd announced his elopement with the young woman who only three years earlier had won the top showmanship title for junior handlers. And who, at nineteen, was less than half his age.
By now it should have stopped hurting.
By now Gracie should be able to go out there and meet anyone-even Paul and Jessica!-with her head held high and a gleam of conidence in her eye.
But it still hurt, and she found it dificult to produce a gleam of any kind, much less in-your-face coni-dence.
Until recently she'd felt completely adrift. Then she d made a big decision and had followed it immediately with another. Her world was inally starting to shift.
To aid in that shift, she d agreed, when asked, to act as liaison between the hotel and the poodle club. It would be good for her, she d told herself. Good for her!
She repeated the words into the mirror, then, straightening her shoulders, went back to the lobby.
Angus watson wiped his stubby nose with a large handkerchief and swore miserably beneath his breath. His eyes were streaming, his nose was running, his skin itched. And all because of those damned dogs. They were everywhere! He d taken double the dosage of antihistamines recommended on the box, and the only result so far had been a fuzzy mind. He d have gone to sleep in the elevator while descending from his room to the lobby if he hadn t been trapped inside it with one of those fancy-cut furry rats that were making his life such a misery. And with the proud owner.
''Don Juan, the woman cooed into the tiny animal ' s ear. ''You ' re the best poodle in the competition, aren t you, baby? And you re going to win top prize for Mommy, too, aren ' t you? Isn ' t that right? ' ' Disgusting.
Angus stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket as he headed for the front desk. Barks accompanied his every step. Don Juan had been set upon his little feet and was now yapping happily at his owner s heels as she crossed the lobby to the front doors. Several other poodles, large to small, were also in the lobby with their owners and took up their compatriot s cause. All were restrained by leashes, but that was little comfort to Angus.
''Ah-choo! Ahh-chooo!" He exploded again, making another grab for his handkerchief.
He marched up to the raised oak counter and, ignoring the fact that the clerk was already speaking to someone, demanded shortly, ''I want to speak with the manager. Right now, this very minute! You tell him- His words were interrupted by another loud sneeze.
The two women, one on either side of the desk, looked at each other, then back at him. The one who stood in his way stepped aside to allow him full access.
''It ' s criminal!' ' Angus bellowed, moving forward. ''I pay good money for a pleasant vacation and look what happens. He waved the balled-up handkerchief at the numerous dogs, only to jerk his hand back to scratch his other arm, then the side of his neck, then a barely accessible spot in the middle of his back. ''The manager! ' ' he thundered. ''At once! ' '
''I ' m the manager, sir, ' ' the tall, slender blonde behind the desk volunteered.
Angus raised himself to his full ive feet, ive inches. If he hadn t been feeling so awful he might have had a little fun. A bombastic performance would be right in keeping with the persona he d assumed. As it was, he meant every word. ''I want these these beasts out of the hotel. What were you thinking of, to allow them here in the irst place? It s an assault on the health and welfare of every registered guest! Look at me. Look! ' ' With perfect timing, he sneezed violently again.
The manager s brow furrowed. ''Is there anything we can do to help you, sir? Call a doctor? A pharmacist?
''I don ' t need a doctor or more pills!' ' he shouted. ''Get rid of the dogs!' '
''It s a dog show, sir. And it s been scheduled for months.
''I don' t care if it' s been scheduled for years! I came to relax, play a little golf
''The dogs are restricted to certain areas
''That they re here at all is enough!
The woman who d given up her space at the counter spoke up. ''Actually, poodles are recommended for people who have allergies. They don t shed, they don t have dog dander. Their hair is similar to human hair.
Angus turned on her. She was shorter than he was by a number of inches, petite yet very nicely curved- something he d been too distracted to notice earlier. She also was quite pretty in a woman-over-thirty sort of way, with her short blond hair and her lively brown eyes. Just the kind of female who d usually appeal to him if it hadn ' t been for his allergies.
He glared at her and demanded incredulously, ''Are you trying to tell me that the way I feel is all in my head?
Her smile was warm enough to melt steel. ''No, just that most people aren t allergic. Obviously, you are. ' ' She extended her hand. ''My name is Gracie Lawson. I ' m the liaison for the poodle club sponsoring the event.
Her skin was soft, pleasingly feminine. In spite of himself Angus s irritation began to dissolve.
''I ' m sorry you' re having a problem, Mr ?' '
''Watson. Angus Watson, ' ' Angus supplied gruffly.
''The competition lasts for two days, Mr. Watson. Today and tomorrow. Then we ll be gone.
The manager ' s fingers flew over a keyboard. ''A possible solution might be to transfer you to another room, Mr. Watson. She gazed intently at a video monitor. ''You ve been with us for two weeks and plan to stay for two more, correct?
''Yes, Angus agreed.
''Would you be willing to move to another wing? one where there are no dogs? Your room would be upgraded as well. It s a suite, actually. And you d still be charged the original rate.
''For two days? Angus demanded.
The manager smiled. ''No, for the remainder of your stay.
Angus sniffed. ''And there d be no dogs? ''None at all, sir.
For the first time since his allergies had started to attack him, Angus s round cheeks creased in a smile. ''That would be very nice, ' ' he said. ''I ' d like that. ' '
The manager clicked a few more keys and the deed was done, and by a further miracle of modern technology, a moment later Angus was handed the magnetic key card that was his entry into an even iner world.
Damn, he liked the perks of this job, he thought. Timberlake Lodge was a classy place to stay. Far better than the jail cells his other accomplices had been stuck in before Celeste Huntington had sent her lawyer to spring them free. Now Angus was going to luxuriate in a suite! And Celeste Huntington couldn t complain, because he was getting it at a bargain rate!
She was a funny woman, Celeste Huntington. She was willing to go to any lengths to gain possession of her grandchild, not caring much whether they were within the law or not. But she didn t want her paid help to be too comfortable while they did her dirty work.
Take him, for example. Since he alone of her henchmen had escaped the failed attempt to snatch the child, she d ordered him to put up at Timberlake Lodge. He didn ' t have to worry about being recognized; no one knew his face or his name. His assignment was to learn all he could about where the quarry they d lushed out might have escaped to. But he d better not run up the tab. Otherwise Celeste would have his head on a stick to show to anyone else who might entertain similar notions.
That was why it was so eminently satisfying to be handed something for free. To get at her, as well as to satisfy his own bent for larceny.
Recalling himself to the moment, Angus excused himself to the two women by bowing from the waist, then started back to his room to pack. When he was ready, he d call for a bellman to assist him in his move. Yes, this was deinitely the life!
He didn t realize until it was too late that he was once again fated to share the elevator with Don Juan. As the doors slid silently shut, the little white dog, held tightly in his owner s arms, started its yappy bark, and Angus couldn t help but wish that it wouldn t blow his cover if he gave its neck a quick twist.
Gracie and Sheila watched Angus Watson disappear into the elevator and heard the resounding sneeze that immediately followed.
''What a strange little man, ' ' Gracie murmured.
''He certainly jumped at the chance for a suite. ' '
''Wouldn ' t you? ' ' Gracie challenged her niece dryly. ''By the way, does he always dress like that?
''Hasn t missed a day since he checked in. He looks like he stepped right off the last hole at St. Andrews-plus fours, argyle socks, tweed jacket and usually a cap.
''A traditional golfing enthusiast. ' '
''Word s come back from someone who played a round with him that he s awful! No ability whatsoever.
''Even stranger, ' ' Gracie said.
''I m relieved he was so easy to pacify.
''You handled the situation perfectly, Sheilie. ' '
''As did you. ' ' The younger woman' s smile turned mischievous. ''I think he was attracted to you. I saw his face light up for a second in between sneezes.
Gracie rolled her eyes. ''Give it a rest, okay? I ' m not interested.
''That s what you always say.