The constant battle of how mature to act raged inside me. Yes, I could flip off my parents, but what good would it do? They’d scoff and pretend they had never in their wildest dreams raised a daughter with the audacity to do such a thing. Flipping them off would feel good for three seconds before the regret would sink in and I’d drink about it later.
So I did the adult thing and kept my big mouth shut.
“We don’t want to discourage you from pursuing…your dreams.” My dear mother choked on her words and I swore my dad’s face turned even redder. “But is this really a way to make a living?”
Maturity is important. I tapped my rainbow-colored nails—because Pride week was soon and I was absolutely an ally—and forced a tight smile. “I appreciate your concern, but I happen to love my plan.”
“It’s not beneath you?” my dad asked, looking around us in the café like his uptight friends would jump out and laugh at his offspring. “Pet sitting?”
“I don’t have the patience for vet school and I love animals. It pays pretty well and I’m off your payroll, so why do you care? I’m saving up to open up my dream business. I have a plan, if you cared to ask about it.”
Oh, I was feeling ballsy. My best friends Megan and Ethan would cheer me on if they could have witnessed this exchange. I got a little thrill at rebelling when they got more flustered.
“It is just not a sturdy profession, Sarah Belle.”
The first and middle name. They might as well cut me out of the will now. I sighed and made sure to cause a real scene by flipping my bright blonde hair with blue tips over my shoulder. “It’s decent and I’m busy. But more importantly, I’m happy. H-a-double p-y.”
I did not mention my almost near-zero bank account. Nope. I’d rather shove the entire fork into my mouth than admit that money wasn’t rolling in like I’d hoped. Sure, Megs said my life was too boring because I only focused on opening this business, but I ignored her truth bombs. My dating life might have been boring, but my hope for the future sure wasn’t.
“Your attitude doesn’t suit you, dear.” My mother pursed her lips, and if she wore a pearl necklace, she would’ve clutched it. “How long do you plan on taking a break from schooling?”
She clicked her tongue just as my alarm went off and I sent a prayer to whoever was listening. “Gotta run. Meeting a new client. Bye!”
They stood up as I left the table. I didn’t humor them by trying to hug goodbye. We didn’t express genuine emotion when it was positive. Guilt and shame? Oh, we did that in spades. I’d have a doctorate in shaming if it were possible. I would at least have a degree then, and my parents would get off my back.
I snorted at my own joke, earning a confused look from the poor guy walking past me. Phoenix in the summer was way too damn hot and the fact that I wasn’t the only person outside saddened me. The sun burned the asphalt to the point it smelled weird and I hurried my short walk to the building where my next job might be. Three months, dog sitting, in a penthouse.
Thousands of dollars.
College wouldn’t pay me that well, would it, parents?
I stopped after I entered the luxurious swanky building and groaned as the air conditioning hit my face. Heaven.
“Ma’am, may I help you?” a tall, old gentleman with a large mustache asked. He wore a green coat and I groaned. He had to be super-hot with all the clothes.
“Hello…” I eyed his name tag. “Ferdinand. Do you go by Fernie?”
“No.” He somehow stood taller at my question. “What are you doing here?” He scanned my outfit and I waited until he met my eyes again. “You might be in the wrong place, dear.”
My light blue dress had tiny straps on my shoulders and fit my curves very well. It made me feel confident and it was the best one to wear when it was one-hundred-and-fifteen outside. Fernie would not judge me. “I’m exactly where I want to be. Thank you. Now, excuse me.”
“You cannot just enter this building,” he said, his eyes widening and his mouth falling open when I barged past him to the elevator. It couldn’t be too hard to find the penthouse. Highest floor, right?
“It seems I just did, good sir.” I pressed the Up button and blew a large bubble when Fernie blinked fast and put his hand on my elbow. I yanked out of his grip. “Oy! Watch it.”
“I will call the police if you do not leave right now!”
I was about to tell him all the ways he could kiss my ass when the elevator doors opened and the most handsome man I had ever seen in my twenty-three years stood there, looking way too good for rational thoughts to form. Perfection.
The hair. The eyes. The beard. The shoulders.
My saliva evaporated from pure lust and wouldn’t return unless he kissed me. It was the only way.
“Nando,” the man said, sparing me a quick glance. “Harassing guests again?”
“She waltzed in here and disobeyed protocol!” he hissed, and that snapped me from my lusty funk.
“Okay, settle down, Fernie. There were no rules posted.”
One side of the handsome man’s lips quirked up and I swore I felt that gesture as if he’d caressed my entire body. Shivers. “Fernie. I like it.”
“He looks like one, right? Maybe it’s the stern nose or the stick up his ass. I can’t decide.”
Ferdinand looked affronted and I held up my hands as the stranger laughed, a deep, rich, beautiful chuckle that made me dizzy. “Security. I will call them.”
“I’m not trespassing.” I held up my phone. “I was invited here. To the penthouse, actually.”
Whatever I said made Fernie’s lip twitch, and I did not like that one bit. Nope. He grabbed my wrist again and before I could yell at him for manhandling me, the perfect specimen of a man took a step toward us, looking pissed off. “Don’t put your hands on her. She’s done nothing wrong.”
“Mr. Alexandre is not here. He won’t be for quite some time.” He practically giggled. “So your excuse for being here doesn’t work.”
“Wrong again, Fernie. But don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you if we are blessed to meet again.” I rubbed my wrist where his fingers touched and I gave a smile of thanks to the stranger, only putting a hint of take me now into it. “Here. Why don’t I clear this up?”
I dialed the number from the app and waited until a rough voice answered. “Hi, Mr. Alexandre, it’s Sarah Blue. Would you be so kind as to retrieve me from the foyer, as your bellhop is channeling his inner Paul Blart.”
“Your reference makes no sense, but I’ll be down.”
“Great. Thank you so much.” I grinned as large as I could and crossed my arms, tapping my foot on the polished floor, making Ferdinand glare at me. “Your I’m wrong face is great.”
He blustered a bit and I used the time to study the other, gorgeous man staring at me. He wore joggers and a black T-shirt that had to be sewn onto his tan skin. Delicious. There was no other way to describe him.
If anyone asked what my type was ever again, I would say him.
He seemed to be studying me too and I blushed head to toe when he gave me a hint of a smirk. “How do you know Alexandre?”
“How do you?” I fired back. He liked my answer. He cackled and leaned on the doorframe instead of exiting. “Two can play your game.”
His amusement pleased me. I wasn’t a huge hit with guys when it came to first impressions. I was loud, spoke my mind, called out things that upset me and never put out. Sure, I flirted when I wanted to, but no one really stood out to star in my spank bank. But this guy. Yup. His face was enough.
“Sarah Blue.” He repeated my name and I bit down on my knuckle and groaned. “What?”
“You’re too good-looking for your own good. I shouldn’t stare at you.” I turned around and almost smacked my forehead for being an idiot. I couldn’t help myself. My parents had raised me to be seen, not heard, and the second I got out from their rule, I flourished into being who I wanted to be—not quiet, always seen and always heard.
The stranger didn’t get a chance to respond before the elevator door opened again and a very well-dressed man appeared. He had to be ten years older than me, maybe more, and he looked like he should be on a runway. His face was all angles and jawline and the suit looked like it cost more than my parents’ house. “Sarah Blue?”
“Mr. Alexandre,” I said, and he nodded. I took a guess that this was the man I was supposed to meet and I felt smug as hell. I wiggled my fingers at Ferdinand in a super not mature way. It was worth it though to see his appalled expression of paled cheeks and wide eyes.
“Ms. Blue, please, come with me.” Mr. Alexandre crooked his fingers at me and I obeyed, damn well knowing he was more terrifying than Ferdinand. It wasn’t unusual for me to meet new clients in their homes, especially if I was watching their animals, and I trusted my gut. While I feared Mr. Alexandre more than I liked, it wasn’t a creepy vibe he gave off. It was authoritative.
I waltzed into the elevator and felt the weight of the handsome stranger’s stare as the doors closed. If there was such a thing as second-hand lust syndrome, I had it. Bad.
Mr. Alexandre remained quiet the entire ride until the doors opened on the top floor. There were just two doors at the end of the hallway and he went to the right. “Are you ready to meet them?”
‘Them’ meaning his two King Charles Spaniels, Pico and Cassandra. “I’d love to meet your fur-children.”
My comment pleased him and he typed five numbers onto a pad before the large black door swung. His room was like a hotel I had only witnessed in movies. Glorious. Open. Beautiful. He had a couch that was at least the size of my old dorm room and it was covered in plush pillows. Oh, I wanted to fall face first onto that couch for a day. “This is beautiful.”
“Thank you. I had it designed for me.” His boots clicked on the…while marble? Quartz? Diamond? Floor. It was too pretty for my eyes and I pretended I hadn’t stepped in melted gum on the walk here. “Pico! Cassandra! Where are you, lovelies?”
I couldn’t stop my lips from curving up. People were weird about their pets. Nicknames and routines and boundaries, and the fierce love they had for their mammals. He wasn’t on the far end of the insane scale of clients I had worked with, but he wasn’t in the middle. If he had a—
He returned from a room just beyond his kitchen with a decked-out gray and black stroller. There was no baby in there. Just two dogs with sparkly blue and purple collars. “Here are my babies. Ms. Blue, Pico and Cassie.”
“Why, hello!” I crouched forward and spoke in a high voice, foregoing all sense of dignity. “Aren’t you both adorable? You two spoiled?” I held out my hand and let them both sniff it for a full thirty seconds before I attempted to pet them. Pico, who had deep brown and black fur, wagged his tail so loud a soft thud kept repeating. “Happy boy. May I?” I gestured to pick him up and Mr. Alexandre nodded.
Pico licked my entire face and I laughed. He was a cutie and we’d get along fine. But he wasn’t the alpha of the house. Cassie was and she gave me the stink eye. “You are a gem, Pico. We’ll be buds. Now, Ms. Cassie, what can I do to win you over?”
She eyed me. She was different from Pico. She had white, brown and black fur and almost had freckles on her face. She was gorgeous but not friendly. She held her nose high in the air and I went from petting her back to her bum, and bam. Her tail wagged.
Damn, it felt good to get along so well with dogs. Humans weren’t as cute.
“She likes you,” he said, his voice rising in clear disbelief.
“I must smell like bacon from lunch,” I said, hoping to ease his mind. That was the trick of pet sitting for people. Their babies couldn’t like me more than they did them, but they had to like me enough to trust me. It was a thin line and I rocked it. “Shall we do a practice if you need to run an errand?”
“No. They don’t like humans much.” He crossed his arms and blinked a lot. “Let’s talk availability.”
“Let’s.” I kissed the top of Pico’s head and followed Mr. Alexandre toward a small glass table overlooking a patio that had the absolute best view of Camelback Mountain. “God, this view. I could die here.”
“I hope you don’t. My babies need love and attention while I’m away.” He pulled out a couple of sheets of paper and a pen. “Your application said you do stay-ins, overnights. How long?”
“It depends on the client. Currently, I have about twenty stops a week that will keep me away roughly the same as work hours. Six hours a day, typically.”
“Where do you live?”
“I won’t take them out of your place besides walks, sir. I assure you.”
“No.” He waved his hand like I’d insulted him. “I meant, can you break your lease if you are renting? I can pay the fee. If you take this job, you will need to be here three months.”
July, August, September. Damn. But I kept my poker face strong. “That is a long time, sir. The cost will be high.”
“I’ll give you twenty thousand dollars, but I must have daily photos and a video chat every other day. They require two walks a day and the best raw food.” He continued talking, but his voice faded as the price kept echoing in my head.
“That’s…that’s…” I mumbled, but he paid me no attention. He brought out a notebook with tabs and slid it across the table. “Sir, please.”
“I will not negotiate. Pico and Cassie are my joys and you are ranked as one of the best at this. Please, Sarah, take care of them. I wish I did not have to travel, but I do.” He sighed and a sad, resigned look took over his face. “This is a lovely place to live.”
“Even with Ferdinand?” I joked, earning a slight smile. “He won’t try to kick me out?”
“He is protective of the tenants. Just don’t bother the door across the hall. He likes his privacy. And do not ruin this place. I will deduct any damages from your payment.”
I gulped and nodded, unable to do much more. Those rules were simple enough for that much money. God, no rent, no school… I could save most of it. “Thank you, sir. I will not let you down.”
He shook my hand and eyed the pen. “Sign and it’ll be official. Can you start tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” I repeated, dumbfounded at the quickness. “I don’t… I need to get my stuff.”
“Take today and tomorrow morning. But noon, be here.” He rose and left me at the table with a contract and a check for ten thousand dollars. Half now, half later.
And I could only stare at it.
“Better get started on getting your stuff, dear Sarah,” he said, his retreating back not exactly friendly.