Six days until Christmas
"What you need is something warm and cuddly for Christmas."
Violet Summerlin frowned into the cell phone she juggled on her shoulder, even though her friend Nan couldn't see her. "I told you, I'm way too busy for a pet." Then she looked down at the fluffy butterscotch-colored Pekingese she was walking in the park. "My own, anyway."
Nan's sigh sounded over the line. "I was talking about a man."
"No time for one of those, either," Violet quipped.
"You work way too hard. When are you going to start delegating things to your new assistant? Wasn't that the idea of hiring her?"
Violet chewed on her lower lip. "I'm still feeling out Lillian. She's nice, but her working style is different than mine."
"You mean she isn't anal retentive? Maybe this Lillian will help you to loosen up."
"Christmas is one of my busiest times of the year. I can't afford to loosen up right now."
"Violet," Nan said softly, "it might not be such a bad idea to slow down. Since you lost your grandparents
I don't know. You seem wound even tighter than usual."
"I miss them terribly," Violet confessed. "Even with Mom and Dad back in town, sometimes I just feel so
"I know, sweetie, but the hours that you work it's not healthy. You're going to wake up one day and wish you'd indulged in a misspent youth."
Violet stopped abruptly as the pooch came up short on the leash, wrinkling his little pug face. Winslow, the Pekingese, looked up at her and barked, a sharp noise that sounded like fabric ripping.
"Thanks for the advice, Nan, but I have to run. The dog won't go if I'm on the phone."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No. He's a spoiled little thing and has to have my undivided attention to
"I would laugh except I know old lady Kingsbury is probably paying you a fortune to do her bidding."
"I'm a personal concierge, Nan. I do whatever my clients need me to do."
"Especially that yummy Dominick Burns."
Nan's favorite subject was Violet's best customer, who also happened to be the most notorious playboy in Atlanta. She ignored the little spike in her own pulseshe'd harbored a secret crush on the man for almost a year. "Until I'm successful enough to pick and choose my clients, I guess I have to put up with all kinds of animals," she said lightly.
"Yeah, but no one's going to get that man on a leash." Nan was panting harder than Winslow.
"Is that the best you can come up with today?" Violet asked, her voice deadpan.
"No wonder his last name is Burns. The man is positively flammable, a four-alarm fire, burn me up and hose me down"
"Good grief, woman, go take a cold shower." Violet disconnected the call, cutting off Nan's laughter, then squatted down to face Winslow, nose to snout.
"Okay, I'm all yours. Now, will you please do your business?"
The dog emitted a chastising little bark and angled his head.
Violet sighed, then glanced at her watch and caved like a wall of ice cream. Time was money, after all.
"You're such a good boy," she cooed in her best baby voice, petting his arrogant little head. "Yes, you are. You're such a pretty, good boy. Yes, you are."
Satisfied, Winslow assumed the position and Violet looked away with a wince.
Some days she questioned her decision to open Summerlin at Your Service, and this was one of those daysit had been an unending stream of tedious trips to the dry cleaners to pick up and drop off shirts, to courier offices to pack and send parcels, and to Patricia Kingsbury's house to walk her contrary pet, Winslow, who pushed the boundaries of his breed's reputation for willful and jealous behavior.
Luckily, most clients preferred to pay Violet's premium fees to do things that were more productive, such as setting up a wireless network for their computer or decorating their house for the holidays. Raised by a grandfather who was an electronics and mechanical whiz and a grandmother who could give Martha Stewart a run for her money, Violet had honed her varied abilities with a masters in business administration and five years in the hospitality industry working assorted jobs, from customer service to operations. Since starting her concierge business three years ago, she prided herself on not having yet received a request from a client that she couldn't fulfill.
Then she frowned. Except the times when the flirtatious Dominick Burns had hinted he wouldn't mind a little personal attention from Violet.
The devilishly handsome bad boy who'd made a fortune designing and manufacturing extreme sports gear was too busy to handle day-to-day details, but he'd told her he didn't like the thought of having an entourage of people on the payroll to tend to him. So Violet stopped by his office once a week to pick up a to-do list that might consist of anything from selecting a suit for him to wear to a special occasion, to selecting personal stationery, to buying a gift for his latest girlfriend.
She wondered wryly what his various and sundry women would think if they knew that the man hadn't walked the aisles of local boutiques to find the perfect gift for their three-date anniversary or whatever the made-up occasion that was no doubt meant to unhinge the women's legs.
But the man was generous, Violet conceded. And he usually had interesting and challenging assignments for her, many of which had put her on the fringe of his business activities. Her pulse ticked higher as she wondered what she'd discover on his agenda today. With only a week until Christmas, it seemed likely that he would hand over his gift list. Mentally scrolling through the women for whom she'd bought gifts throughout the year, she came up with an estimate of twenty.
A nice, round number, she thought wryly.
She leaned over to bag Winslow's offering, deposited it in a nearby trash can and urged him in the direction of his home. The air carried a chill and she wondered if by some miracle she would see snow for
Christmas. Even in the dead of winter, snow in Atlanta was rare. But she could hope.
Sadly, this would be her first year without her grandparents. But her somewhat elusive parents had taken a break from their world travels to stay in her grandparents' house for a while and spend the holidays with Violet. She missed Grammy and Gramps desperately, but she'd always dreamed of sharing a magical Christmas with her parents when she was young. Still, it had never been more than a dream. Her mother and father were simply too wrapped up in each other to pay their daughter much mind.
But now that she could orchestrate the holiday herself, she was eagerly anticipating the three of them sipping hot cider around an ornament-laden tree, with the aroma of a ham in the oven, and carols in the background as they exchanged heartfelt, meaningful gifts to express their love for each other. She had made her mother a coverlet out of her grandmother's house dresses and had bought her father a beautiful set of hand tools for the workshop he'd been talking about setting up in the garage. After years away, flitting around the globe for her father's job as a translator to diplomats, it seemed as if her parents were finally settling down.
Violet sighed in contentment. It would be the best Christmas ever.
A half block away from the Kingsbury house, a towering brick structure draped with holiday lights that Violet herself had installed, Winslow jutted out his little underbite, then sat down.
And refused to budge.
Irritated, Violet scooped him up and carried him the rest of the way. Which was, she realized as he pressed his cold nose to her shoulder, exactly what he'd wanted her to do, the little beast.
"You're incorrigible," she chastised.
Patricia Kingsbury met them at the door to take Winslow into her bejeweled arms. The dog stiffened, but went, even though he looked back at Violet and whined.
"Did he go poo-poo?" Patricia sounded concerned, but her face remained expressionless, which Violet attributed to the woman's regular BOTOX injections.
Patricia cuddled her poufy dog. "You always seem to know how to make him go, Violet."
"It's a gift," Violet agreed. "If there's nothing else, Ms. Kingsbury"
"Violet, you've worked for me for two years. Please call me Patricia."
"Patricia," Violet amended with a smile, "if there's nothing else"
"I put my grocery list on the table. And would you mind taking a few things back to the mall for me, dear?" She pointed to a mound of bags on a settee.
"Not at all."
"Here's my credit card. Just have everything reversed and if there are any problems, call me."
"I'm sure there won't be any problems," Violet said pleasantly, then gathered the list and the bags in her arms and waddled toward the door. "I'll drop off your credit card tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow afternoon is fine, dear, when you come back to walk Winslow. He'll be ready to toodle again by then."
Violet maintained her smile. "Great. See you then."
Being relegated to a dog coach wasn't so bad, she told herself as she steered her hybrid SUV onto I-75 northbound. Ms. Kingsbury rarely had difficult requests, and she'd given Violet many referrals. With this job, one learned to take the bad with the good.
After battling six lanes of traffic for thirty minutes, Violet reached a subdivision where three empty upscale houses were for sale. She'd been commissioned to go through and knock down cobwebs, adjust the temperature, put fresh flowers in vases and generally ensure that when an agent stopped by with a potential customer, there were no surprisessuch as the bankrupted former owner of the house living in a closet. Or a raccoon in the kitchen. Or a fallen tree sticking through the bedroom ceiling.
She'd seen it all.
Armed with Gerbera daisies, a broom and a Taser, she sped through the houses, opening doors and checking every nook and cranny. After an uneventful sweep, she jumped on I-75 southbound and fought traffic again to reach a tobacco store, where she picked up the box of cigars she'd special-ordered for Dominick Burns last week, then turned her car toward her office in midtown. A few blocks away her cell ph...