"Is that groomer girl still here?" Mrs. Penny Kerner asked her daughter in a loud voice, adjusting the collar of her suede jacket, while looking at herself in a large hallway mirror.
Her daughter, Cathleen, having a more gentle nature and softer tone replied in a whisper, "Mother, lower your voice. She's right around the corner and may hear you." Cathleen glanced anxiously toward a door that was partially ajar.
"I don't care."
Cathleen raised her tone a bit. "Besides, she's not a groomer, she's a pet stylist."
"She's a dog groomer. A fancy name doesn't change what she does."
"I'm sure they'll be done soon."
"I hope so," her mother stated harshly.
Yvette Coulier continued to brush the luxuriously silky brown fur of Binky, a three-year-old Pomeranian, as she sat snugly in the folds of an oversize, blue crushed-velvet cushion. She had been very cooperative and had managed to maintain the same position throughout the photo shoot. Although the photographer, Lewis Wolfson, had finished taking pictures, Yvette wanted to make sure that Binky continued to look her best. Not that Binky didn't already match the elegance of the Kerner's mansion with its vaulted ceilings, Mediterranean marble floors and a life-size oil painting of Mrs. Kerner and Cathleen that dominated the main foyer. Yvette wanted to spend just a little more time. She could hear the soothing sound of the waterfall sculpture coming from the open patio door. It was an unseasonably warm spring for Michigan and Mrs. Kerner had insisted that she wanted "natural" air flowing through the house.
Mrs. Kerner was right. She was just a dog groomer. Perhaps one of the best in the city, but a groomer all the same. However, Yvette wasn't ashamed of her job and took great pride in what she did. She'd started volunteering at animal shelters while in high school and had had a brief stint as a vet tech, before becoming a grooming assistant at a local salon. Four years later she partnered with her friend Madlyn to open Le Chic Hounds, and very soon her reputation grew. In just a few years, Yvette had groomed the dogs of both major and minor celebrities, socialites and very rich bachelors. And although she got invited to some outrageously expensive homes, she always felt out of place. Her job allowed her to mingle with a class of people with whom she knew she'd never belong, but secretly desired to.
"I just had a thought," Lewis said as he put his camera equipment away. He was a large, handsome man of thirty with dark brown bedroom eyes and a boyish smile.
Yvette began to pack her supplies as well. "What?"
"Our lives suck."
She sent him a censoring glance. "Speak for yourself."
"Look at us." He gestured to them, then the room. "The only reason we're in this fabulous mansion is for a three-year-old dog!"
"Pomeranian," she corrected.
"The breed doesn't matter."
"The breed always matters."
"Well, whatever breed he happens to be, you're grooming him and I'm taking his picture. Doesn't that seem odd to you?"
"She's keeping us fed." Yvette shrugged. "Besides, other people aren't this lucky."
Lewis stared at her, incredulous. "You call this lucky?"
"At least we're not sweeping floors."
Lewis took several steps forward, motioning to Binky, who by now was ready to take a nap. "This dog is wearing a collar that's half my salary. Do you notice how she doesn't even move?"
"She's well trained."
"I bet she gets picked up so much she doesn't even know how to walk." He closed a large case.
"I'm sure she walks just fine, but I did notice that her paws are a little tender."
Lewis frowned at the dog. "From what I see she's not suffering and she certainly has a better life than I do."
Yvette shook her head. "You're getting depressed again."
"I'm already depressed."
Yvette sent Lewis a questioning look. "You and Tansin split up again?"
He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. "It's over this time."
"Uh-huh," Yvette said, unconvinced.
"You've broken up seven times in as many months. I'll wait before I say I'm sorry for you."
"I'm telling you the absolute truth." He winked at her. "Now I'm a free man."
Yvette shook her head. "It would never work. You're not my type."
"Nobody's your type. I've never seen you express interest in a man, or even a woman."
"I'm not into women." She zipped up her bag.
Lewis raised his hands in surrender. "I had wondered."
"Well, now you can stop wondering."
He folded his arms. "So you like men?"
"Then how come after knowing you for most of your life I don't know what type of man would catch your interest?" He snapped his fingers. "Wait. I know the perfect man for you."
"Someone really old and very rich. You'd make the perfect kept woman."
Yvette thought it best not to reply. Lewis wasn't the only man to think so. Men liked Yvette—young men, old men, plain men, handsome men, single men and unfortunately, married men. Especially married men. Men who thought she'd be the perfect mistress. She had had two short-lived semi-serious relationships in her early twenties but that was all. She didn't need a man anyway. At twenty-eight she felt her life was on track and she was perfectly happy on her own.
Yvette owned a fashionable dog-grooming business. But although she was doing well, she had a long way to go to earn the kind of income that would elevate her to the status she dreamed of.
"I was supposed to be the next Gordon Parks," Lewis said with a weary sigh. "Or Ansel Adams. But look at me."
Yvette looked at him and wanted to laugh. Lewis could never look like a tragic figure. He was too well dressed. He always wore name-brand clothes and had a new watch every three months. Yvette never asked him how he was able to afford his purchases, although she was curious.
"You're still young enough to make your mark," she said, refusing to offer any sympathy. "Everybody has to pay their bills. People understand that."
"Don't blame Tansin for your lack of success. Besides, she probably isn't right for you."
He raised a sly brow. "You might be right for me."
"We already addressed that topic."
"I was hoping you'd changed your mind."
He sat on the couch, brushing away a large leaf from a palm tree next to him.
Yvette sent a nervous glance toward the doorway. "Get up. You're not supposed to look as though you're relaxing."
"I'm sitting down. Besides, this chair is far from relaxing. It's probably softer on the floor."
"Then sit on the floor."
"You care too much about what they think."
"Yes, because my reputation is everything."
"I'll get up when I hear them coming. You should sit down, too. You've been fussing over that dog for hours."
Yvette was used to being on her feet, but knew this grueling job would have her soaking in a bath tonight.
Lewis wagged a finger at her. "One day someone is going to make you change your mind about your ideal man."
"I don't have an ideal."
"Everybody has an ideal. You just don't know yours. You know what your problem is?"
"The fact that you won't stop talking?"
He shook his head. "No. You just don't like people. You only associate with animals. And yet you don't even have a pet."
"I don't have the time."
"You never make time for relationships in your life."
Yvette rested her hands on her hips and looked at him, annoyed. "Why are we talking about me? I thought you were the one who's miserable."
"I am. I'm just trying to convince you that you are, too."
She made a face.
The sound of footsteps coming in their direction made Lewis jump up. Yvette adjusted Binky's diamond-encrusted collar.
Penny entered the room with Cathleen trailing behind her. Penny had a fat neck, which she couldn't help, but she made the unfortunate decision of emphasizing it with large, expensive jewelry, either because she was ignorant of her flaw or vain. Cathleen, who couldn't be older than twenty-three, nearly disappeared behind her mother in a green silk dress that was obviously expensive but two sizes too big. From what she'd observed, Yvette had an uneasy feeling that Penny spent most of her money and attention on Binky, instead of her daughter.
"Are we all finished now?" Penny said in a voice that implied that they were.
Lewis swung his camera bag over his shoulder. "Yes."
She picked Binky up. "Don't we look beautiful?"
"She was very good," Yvette said.
"She really looks nice," Cathleen said, reaching out to stroke Binky. Penny slapped her hand away. Cathleen withdrew her hand, looking embarrassed, and stared at the floor.
Yvette glanced at Lewis who only shrugged. She glanced at Binky's paws then cleared her throat. "May I make a suggestion?"
"No," Penny responded, as she continued fussing over the dog.
"Yes," a deep voice said from the doorway. Yvette and Lewis turned their attention to a tall, dark figure. Most contemporary men weren't built like him. They'd been sensitized, refined. He was a throwback to a different era, even in his black suit. His movements were too coarse to be called cultured and his body to large to be called elegant. Yet he was both. And then there was his face. Handsome seemed too simple a word to describe him for his features were both sharp and tender, fine but not delicate and there was an inherent strength about him. It was without the haughty veneer of most attractive men. Yvette had never gasped at the sight of a man before. She was too practical for that, but for some reason this man made breathing seem difficult. Especially when he stepped from the doorway and approached them. His compelling brown eyes briefly met hers across the room, sending unwanted shivers of awareness through her.
Penny turned to him. "But she's just a—"
The man sent her a cutting glance and she stopped, for a moment looking just as chastised as her daughter had been earlier. He turned his piercing gaze to Yvette. "Please continue, Miss…" He made an impatient gesture with his hand demanding that she fill in the blank.
"Coulier," Yvette dutifully answered.
He nodded. "My aunt can always benefit from good advice."
Penny didn't look as though any advice would be welcome. Her lips practically disappeared into her mouth, and her skin, previously a nice warm beige, was an unhealthy shade of red. However, Yvette maintained her composure. She kept her voice firm. "I just wanted to suggest that you change your floor polish."
Penny sent her a cold glare, the red in her cheeks becoming more prominent. "I don't clean floors."