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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 teacherseven temporarily unemployed ones like herselfcouldn'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 aloneshe had Bliss, after allhad 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 only genetic-lottery winners.
Elizabeth made an attempt to take a deep, calming breath and willed herself not to look at his intense, dark eyes or his broad shoulders, shown off to perfection with the tailored cut of his suit jacket. It wasn't easy. Everything about the man was captivating. Noble, even. Which, when she thought about it, really should have disgusted her. She'd been right, after all. Mr. Darcy was clearly wealthy. What kind of person jetted all over the globe to judge dog shows?
Good grief. He was rich, imposing and handsome enough to cause heart palpitations. Next to Elizabeth, Sue's fanning arm had gone into overdrive.
Life just wasn't fair.
Of course, Elizabeth had learned that lesson long ago. And, just in case it slipped her mind, the recent Markham incident had served as a painful reminder.
"You're up," Sue whispered.
The comment barely registered in Elizabeth's consciousness. She blinked. Somehow she was once again staring at Mr. Darcy. She must have also been hallucinating because he seemed to be staring back at her. All the breath whooshed out of her lungs. His intensity was almost crippling when it was aimed directly toward her, even though it was only in her imagination.
"Elizabeth," Sue hissed. "You're up."
The older woman gave her a shove, and she stumbled forward. Bliss let out a little yip as Elizabeth tripped over her and slammed into Mr. Darcy's impressive chest. It seemed he'd not only actually been staring at her, but he'd also taken several steps in her direction.
Horrified, Elizabeth backed up. "I'm so sorry, Your Honor.
I mean, sir
um, Mr. Darcy." Too mortified to look him in the eye, she aimed the words at his tie. It was royal-blue, by all appearances silk, and likely cost more than Elizabeth's entire ensemble. Shoes included.
The tie rose and fell with his irritated sigh. "Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy number eight?"
"Yes, that's us."
"The steward has been calling you for two full minutes. Is something preventing you from entering the ring?"
Your exquisite bone structure? "No. I'm sorry. I was a bit___ distracted."
"Would you care to enter the ring now, or do you require an engraved invitation?" His smooth voice and the beauty of his British accent did little to soften the blow of his sarcasm.
Once she got over the initial shock, Elizabeth was almost grateful for his rudeness. At least he was no longer perfect. He was a man, just like any other.
She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Even then she almost had to crane her neck to look him in the eye. A wasted effort, since he appeared to look right through her.
"That won't be necessary," she whispered.
"Then by all means." He waved her through the white lattice ring gates with a flourish.
Elizabeth's cheeks burned. The other judges she'd encountered since she'd begun showing Bliss had all been friendly. Or civil, at the very least. With only three strides of his long legs, Mr. Darcy was halfway across the ring. Even at that distance, Elizabeth could still feel the frosty chill emanating from his every pore.
What is his problem?
All she could reason was that, unlike Sue, Mr. Darcy was fully cognizant that he was in New Jersey rather than his posh country estate in England. And he appeared none too pleased with this realization.
"Number eight?" From his place in the center of the ring, Mr. Darcy tapped his foot. Bliss watched it with rapt attention. "If it's not a bother
that is, if you aren't too distracted, could you take your dog around the ring?"
Elizabeth wasn't sure what happened in the next instant, other than that she'd finally reached her breaking point. After all she'd been through, she couldn't tolerate breathing the same air as another arrogant, wealthy man. Even one who looked more like a god than a mere mortal.
The words flew out of her mouth, as if of their own volition. "I have a name, you know."
A hush fell on the crowd of onlookers standing ringside.
Mr. Darcy crossed his arms, revealing the tips of his French cuffs and a discreet pair of gold cuff links. "I beg your pardon?"
"I have a name." Elizabeth's voice was shakier than she would have liked. She cleared her throat. "And it's not number eight."
Mr. Darcy's eyebrows rose. "Do enlighten me."
"It's Elizabeth. Elizabeth Scott."
Electric sparks of tension ricocheted around the ring, bouncing off the white lattice separating the two of them from everyone else. The only one who appeared oblivious to what was going on was Bliss. She inhaled a wide, squeaky dog yawn and curled into a ball at Elizabeth's feet.
Elizabeth poked the dog with the toe of her ballerina flat. "Bliss, get up, baby."
The Cavalier rose to her feet and glanced back and forth with her wide, round eyes from her mistress to the judge.
"Very well, then," Mr. Darcy said evenly. "Miss Scott, please take your dog around and then place her on the table."
Elizabeth gathered the end of Bliss's show lead in her left hand. Her palm was damp with perspiration, as was the back of her neck and the area between her breasts. She could only hope no one else noticed.
"Come on, Bliss. Let's go." She tried to infuse her tone with as much enthusiasm as possible.
It wasn't the loveliest lap Bliss had ever made, but Elizabeth could hardly blame the poor dog. She cooed and cajoled and, in general, made a fool of herself in an effort to get the Cavalier to perk up a bit. It felt like the longest trot around the ring in dog-show history.
When it was finally over and they reached the table, Bliss's little doggy eyebrows looked as though they were scrunched in concern. Elizabeth couldn't resist planting a tiny kiss on her head as she scooped her up and placed her on the grooming table.