Rent was due again.
A problem, considering I hadn’t had a job in over a month and didn’t want to pay my half out of my savings account. I had almost enough money to buy my cake truck, but withdrawing rent money again meant my dream was receding into an uncomfortably distant future. My family had already been pressuring me to quit it with the crappy gigs and either find a real job in my field or enter the Master’s /Ph.D. Program at Columbia. But working a full-time job would leave little time for polishing my business plan and testing a few final recipes. My eye twitched. I had to get my cake truck off the ground before my mother and brothers drove me into grad school.
This job sounded promising. Dog sitting was one of my favorite gigs. I loved dogs, though my father’s allergies meant we’d never had one as kids. And aside from the fact that I needed a job, any job, Greenwich, CT, was only a few miles from my neighborhood in Port Chester, New York.
The front door opened before I rang the bell. A trim woman in a white blouse and black pants examined me like a less-than-prime slab of beef.
“You’re small,” she said.
I was small. Five-foot nothing in my bare feet, I weighed about 95-ish pounds on a good day. I came by it honestly, as my entire family was of less than average height—which might account for our collective overachievements.
Choosing to ignore her comment, I slathered on the charm and extended my hand. “Hi, Lauren, I’m Gracie.”
The woman thawed and smiled, taking my hand and shaking it. “Hello Gracie, I’m Marcy, the house manager. Please follow me. Lauren is waiting for you.”
House Manager? I refrained from shaking my head and followed Marcy down a hall lined with artwork into an enormous kitchen. A tall, slender, blonde woman, who might have been anywhere from thirty to fifty, stood staring out a set of French doors.
Hearing our approach, she turned. “Gracie, hello. I’m Lauren. I’m so glad you came.” She dwarfed me.
“Hi, Lauren, it’s so nice to meet you.” I stuck out my hand again.
She took it and held it for a touch too long, examining me much like Marcy had, making sweat prickle in my hairline. Finally, she pulled me up onto my toes and into a hug.
“I think Viceroy will love you,” she pronounced, releasing me. She still looked me over, but casually now. I allowed myself a small thrill of promise, glad I had worn my one interview blouse tucked into dark jeans, as I glanced around, not seeing a dog.
“He’s there.” Lauren pointed to a phalanx of gardeners, who were raking acorns fallen from dozens of tall oak trees while a shaggy little tan dog tried desperately to play with them. My heart melted.
“Oh, he’s a cutie,” I said. Wow. Taking care of him would be easy. He was fun size. “So, you want me to take him to parks twice a week?”
“Yes, but”—she paused—“his needs are more complex than a walk in the park, Gracie. He’s a special little boy.” She picked her words as if they were unknown flavors in a box of chocolates.
“Special how? Is he disabled?” Lauren burst out laughing.
“Far from it. Viceroy is as healthy as a horse and will be for a very long time.” She stopped, peering at her perfectly manicured nails before adding. “He just … he needs more than exercise.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He needs more than trips to the park and cuts from the butcher, Gracie.” She frowned, dragging her gaze to my eyes. “I’ve decided I would be upfront this time. There’s no point in sugar-coating it—I tried that with the first few sitters, and it didn’t work out well. He’s a vampire, Gracie.”
I froze solid. Less than five minutes in this house, and we’re talking vampires? She had sounded so normal on the phone.
“Uhhh … what?” My brain had frozen right along with my body. “One of the gardeners is a vampire?”
“No, Viceroy.” She pointed towards the flying ball of fur. “Viceroy, my dog, is a vampire.”
The dog? She’s talking about the dog. The dog I’m being interviewed to sit for. I took a deep breath while my brain groped for words. “Do you mean an emotional vampire? Does he take up a lot of your time and energy?”
She pursed her lips. “No, Viceroy’s not an emotional vampire. He’s an actual vampire. He drinks squirrel blood.” She let out a breath I hadn’t realized she was holding and continued in a chattier tone as if telling me her dog is a blood-sucking vampire wasn’t oversharing her craziness with someone she’d just met. “He’s drained all the squirrels in the neighborhood. He needs new places, places with squirrels, and I don’t have time to take him myself.” Lauren crossed her arms tightly over her chest, hugging herself. “Listen, I love Viceroy, no matter what he is, and I need you to know that.”
Now I backed up a step. Questions swirled, tilting my balance. I fought the sudden urge to bolt for the front door. If I ran, would she chase me? The prickles of sweat in my hairline bloomed.
Lauren’s shoulders slumped. “I can tell you the story—how he got this way, I mean. It might help if you heard it all. Then, if you still want to leave, I understand.” She stood still as Lot’s wife, waiting for me to decide.
Okay, Gracie, think. If you had this many oak trees, you had squirrels. Lauren thinks she has no squirrels because her dog has drained them all. So who’s crazier here? Her, for thinking her dog is a vampire, or me for listening to her? I stood, watching the gardeners, at least six or seven of them, rake acorns. The little dog, Viceroy, dashed back and forth between them, nipping at their heels until one of them picked up a yellow tennis ball and threw it across the lawn. The shaggy little thing flew after it, bringing the ball back to the gardener and setting it at his feet. Well, how cute was that?
So the little dog is adorable, and his owner is bananas. And Bananas was still waiting for my answer. Running like hell would be the rational thing to do. But I needed this job, crazy lady, notwithstanding if I were ever to get my cake truck and get my emotionally wrought-up family off my back.
That, and I was curious. I wanted to hear Lauren’s story. Besides, at least a dozen people were here to help me if Lauren’s head suddenly did a 360.
“No. I’ll stay,” I said.
She heaved an enormous sigh of relief before turning away from the doors. “How about a cup of herbal tea? I have a new one that’s quite soothing.”
“Um, no thanks, but water would be great.” I wasn’t a tea drinker and didn’t think an herbal sedative would be a wise choice, seeing as I should hang on to my wits—what few of them I seemed to have about me today.
Lauren pulled a bottle of Pellegrino out of the glass-doored refrigerator for me and busied herself with the kettle.
I tried not to think about the big V in the room, forcing myself to study the gleaming kitchen instead. It was enormous, and I was instantly envious. The refrigerator stood next to what must be a separate upright freezer. The two giant appliances dwarfed a squat Wolf range. There was also a double oven, most likely convection, built into the wall. A white marble pastry bench dominated the center of the room. Next to it, a butcher block built for three was attached to a prep sink. An open pantry held a shelf full of professional-grade appliances. But for all the money spent, the gorgeous kitchen smelled like window cleaner and furniture polish. Not a single food aroma tickled my nose. If this were my kitchen, it would smell like cakes baking, like vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate. My heart cracked open like an overbaked cheesecake.
A loud scratching at the French doors interrupted my kitchen lust. Lauren let the little dog in, and he shot right past her, beelining straight at me. He stopped short, stood on his hind legs, and placed his front paws gently on my leg for balance, his tail wagging so hard his entire body rocked. He grinned up at me, panting. I scratched his ears, pulling my hands back quickly.
“Don’t worry—he never bites people. Do you, Viceroy?” Lauren smiled to reassure me. Viceroy dropped back to the floor and ran from the room. “Oh, perfect.” She beamed. “He’s going for a ball; he likes you, Gracie. He never asks to play with people he doesn’t like.”
“Uh, maybe I will have that cup of tea.” I needed something more substantial than fizzy water, and since she hadn’t offered me a straight shot of anything alcoholic, a hot, soothing cup of tea would have to do.