A Black Lab Story
ALL THAT GLITTERS
"Let's see. That's five days of house-sitting, feeding and walking the dog, plus picking up the mail." Mark peeled off a generous sheaf of bills from his gold-plated money clip, and held it out. "This should about do it. And this too for the tip."
The eyes of the attractive woman before him were wide and staring. "I can't take that tip! It’s almost as much as my wages, Mr. Sheraton."
"I've asked you to call me Mark," he reminded her with a smile. "And it's not too much. My last house-sitter stole my spare watch, ignored my dog, and threw a party in my house. I haven't had one problem since I've used your services. You're a blessing, Jennifer. I'm grateful. So is Baron."
Mark watched her hand stroked the glossy coat of his black Labrador retriever. Baron's tail wagged against Jennifer's skirt, fur and material swishing together in an even rhythm.
"Please, take the tip money. You earned it."
Jennifer hesitated. "Actually, I'd rather have something else from you."
Mark's hand dropped to his side. "Something else?"
"Yes. You see, I need some advice. Fashion advice."
"Fashion..." His voice trailed off in disbelief. "But you look lovely!"
Jennifer laughed, a delightful sound that filled every corner of his spacious Manhattan penthouse. "Oh, really, Mr. Sheraton, you needn't be so polite. I know exactly what I look like--a California surfer wanna-be. Look and tell me I'm wrong."
Mark did as she requested. He took in the riot of hair that flowed free down her back; the red curls tangled about a ridiculous pair of oversized parrot earrings. Her top and swirling skirt were an inexpensive cotton tropical print, the colors as flamboyantly vivid as her hair. Beneath the shapely legs were a pair of bright green sandals that exactly matched the shade as her eyes.
You light up the room, Mark thought, but he couldn't say that. He settled instead for, "You're a very striking woman."
She grimaced. "You mean I stand out like a sore thumb. My gentleman friend says I look like a refugee from a flower-power hippie from the 70s."
"Your boyfriend doesn't like your clothes?" Mark's fingers tightened on the bills still in his hand. "Is that what this is about?"
"It's not just that," Jennifer quickly replied. "This is the city. Good jobs are as tough to find as good apartments. Don't get me wrong, I love animals." She scratched behind Baron's ears. "And house-sitting pays my bills, but not everyone's as generous as you are. I have my pre-vet degree, but I need a decent job if I'm ever to start vet school in the fall. I'll never find one dressed like this." She stared at her hot-pint sandals with distaste. "Bill says I look like I'm fifteen instead of twenty-three. Maybe he's right."
"So you want me to change your--image?" Mark said slowly.
Jennifer nodded. "If you wouldn't mind giving me a few pointers. I mean, you're very sophisticated and very mature."
Mark kept his temper under control. "I'm only seven years older than you--hardly in my dotage."
"I know," she said, giving him a lovely smile. "But I'm a lost cause when it comes to New York chic. While you--" She took in his understated tailored clothes, the expensive cut of his hair, and tasteful watch and signet ring. "Would you help me?"
"I--" Mark hesitated, and he was a man who rarely hesitated at anything. "I never saw myself as Henry Higgins. And you're no Eliza Doolittle."
"But I am!" Jennifer insisted. "Please, Mr. Sheraton. I don't want to clean people's bathrooms the rest of my life!"
"You clean houses, too?" His tone of voice was so shocked that Baron's ears pricked.
Jennifer lifted her chin, not ashamed in the least. "It pays the rent."
There was silence in the room. Then, "I'll do it," Mark decided. "But only if you take my tip." He ignored her protests, and made her accept all the money, paycheck and tip. "You come see me every Friday after you get off work. Whenever you get here is fine. We'll see what we can do."
"Friday nights? But--"
"If you're worried about my social life, don't. Friday nights Baron and I watch a movie on cable." An unpleasant thought came to him. "Unless this interferes with yours."
"Bill hasn't asked me out lately--" Jennifer abruptly broke off. "I mean, Friday nights are just fine. Thank-you so much, Mr. Sheraton."
"That's Mark," he insisted.
Jennifer nodded, but she didn't use his first name. "Call me if you change your mind."
"Friday," he said firmly. He walked her to the elevator, and watched until the doors closed. Baron whined.
"Don't be a fool, boy. She doesn't live here." Baron whimpered again, and Mark absently fondled the black ears. "Besides, Friday's only three days away.
Those days seemed to drag on forever. But finally his buzzer rang, the elevator doors opened, and Jennifer stepped foot inside his apartment again. Baron barked a greeting, then enthusiastically jumped up on Jennifer, his massive paws resting on the crouching tigers of her safari blouse.
"Hello, Jennifer. Baron, get down," Mark ordered, reaching for Baron's collar.
"Don't scold him, he was only being friendly. Right, boy?" She gave them both her familiar brilliant smile. "I hope I'm not disturbing you two."
"Oh, no. We've been waiting."
Jennifer gave the dog one last pat. "Well, here I am, ready for my make-over."
"Make-overs aren't my specialty," Mark replied. "But I have some ideas like this outlet store that carries inexpensive designer knock-offs."
"You'll tell me what outfits are classy and which ones aren't?"
"I can try. I know what my mother and sister like to wear."
"Great!" Jennifer clapped her hands together. "I brought my debit card."
Mark firmly ignored the Baron's mournful expression as he and Jennifer left him behind, then stepped into the elevator. "Let's go."
The cab ride seemed all too short, the time alone with her even shorter. Mark contentedly walked next Jennifer toward the store. As always, the New York sidewalks were filled with pushing, bustling throngs of people. But Jennifer's animated presence eclipsed them all.
"What kind of job are you looking for?" he asked, dismissing the limo with a wave of his hand.
"I have a minor in art history. A friend of mine told me about an opening coming up in the gallery where he works. I'd work evenings, and take classes during the day."
"A gallery... I'd suggest a classic look in muted colors--simple, subdued, and quiet."
Jennifer frowned. "That doesn't sound like me."
Mark silently agreed. "You need to be able to blend into the background in an art gallery. You can't detract from the exhibits."
Her hand rose self-consciously to her head. "My hair," she groaned. "I can't very well shave my head. And I'd rather not color it."
"Heavens, no!" He was horrified at the thought. "The color's is fine. Try putting it up in a French braid. I'll give you the name of the hairdresser my sister uses to have hers done."
"The braid sounds okay, but I think I'll do it myself," Jennifer said decisively. "How hard can it be?"
Mark remained silent, and forced himself to keep from touching the curls tumbling down her shoulders. He was never one to touch another man's woman, yet it was proving to be exceedingly difficult to keep to that resolution. He tucked Jennifer's arm inside hers, telling himself that it was only the polite thing to do in these crowds.
"We're here," he said lightly. "After you, madame."
A few hours later they came out again, his hands grasping carrying straps on sacks filled with clothing.
"You should let me carry some," Jennifer insisted. "I must have bought out the whole store. You were right about those prices. They're fantastic. So are the clothes."
Mark smiled. "You looked great in all of them."
"Only because you have good taste. I wouldn't have looked twice at half of these. Not one loud color among them."
"I'm sorry about that." He really was. Somehow the stunning creature in the designer cuts hadn't seemed like the good-natured woman who didn't mind black dog hairs on her clothes.
Jennifer gave him a puzzled look. "Don't be. It's what I wanted. I mean, it's all trappings anyway, right? I'm not changing on the inside."
Jennifer kindly patted his arm. "I know how to cheer you up. How does a hot dog and fresh salted pretzel sound? My treat. I've worn you out, and we haven't eaten."
"That sounds good, and you haven't worn me out at all," Mark insisted, afraid she might back off at a later date. "It's been fun. I've had marathon shopping sessions with my mother and sister. Dad refuses to go with them, but I don't mind."
"You're a very nice person, Mark."
Nice. That word rang in his head long after the cab dropped her off at her walk-up. Nice. The ultimate insult to any red-blooded male. He wasn't handsome, or debonair, or charming, or intelligent, or--heaven forbid--sexy. He was nice. Mark was still trying to force that word out of his head when the following Friday rolled around.
Baron rose from his spot under the grand piano at the sound of the elevator, but Mark was even quicker. He beat the dog by a good ten feet to the door, opened it, and let Jennifer into the penthouse.
"Jennifer?" Mark froze in his steps. "Is that you?"
"In the flesh."
Mark blinked in surprise, and stared at the vision of New York high fashion. Everything from the tip of her French-braided head to the grey pumps was sophistication personified.
She laughed her delightful laugh, and pirouetted for his benefit. "Well, what do you think?"
"You're certainly a fast study," he said, not knowing exactly what to think. She looked like something out of Vogue, not the woman who petted his dog and brightened his home.
Jennifer took his remark as a compliment. "Thank-you, kind sir. I've worked hard at this facade."
"I can tell. What are you interested in buying this trip?"
"About that--I'm afraid I can't stay."
Mark hid his disappointment. "No?"
"No. I've been called back for a second interview the art gallery. I'm on my way over there right now. I just had to tell you. If it wasn't for your help, I wouldn't have made it this far."
"Don't go yet." Mark walked up to her, and gently touched the wooden parrot in one ear. "Better take these out before the job interview."
Jennifer's fingers, complete with newly painted nails flew to her ears. In all the times he'd used Jennifer's house-sitting services, he never remembered her painting her nails.
"Those silly things. I forgot to change them." She pulled them out and he held out his hand to hold them for her. "I have the ones I want to wear in my purse." She slipped simple gold studs into her ear lobes. "There. How's that?"
"It looks--" Like the last trace of the real Jennifer is gone. "Nice." There was that word again. Well, she used it on him. He could use it on her.
Jennifer gave him an assessing luck. "I thought you'd be happy for me, Mr. Sheraton. If I get this job, I start vet school this fall."
"That's Mark," he automatically corrected. "And I am happy for you. But I--that is, Baron--will miss you when you're off in class."
"That's not for months, yet. You'll both see me next Friday," Jennifer promised. "Wish me luck."
He slipped the bright parrot earrings into his pocket, leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. "That's for luck."
She blinked in surprise. "I--uh--have a taxi waiting. Bye."
Mark punched the button that activated the elevator doors as Baron pushed past him to lick Jennifer's hand.
"Get away, Baron." She impatiently stepped away from the eager dog. "You're shedding."
The doors closed. Baron stared at Mark with sad eyes, and Mark withdrew the parrot earrings from his pocket.
"Don't look at me like that, boy. It wasn't my idea to play Henry Higgins." With a sigh of frustration, Mark threw the earrings in the kitchen trash can. "She was never interested in us anyway."
But much later, he carefully fished the parrots out again and put them on his desk, next to the calendar that told him Friday would come again. And with it, Jennifer.
The elevator bell rang, signaling Jennifer's entrance a week later. Baron refused to greet her. He had his pride, but Mark didn't. He ran to the elevator doors and was waiting as she came out.
"Jennifer!" He eagerly drank in her familiar face in the unfamiliar, sophisticated clothes. "Did you get the job?"
"Well, no," she answered, her smile as lovely as ever as they both sat down. "But they want me to interview at another branch next week. I'm so excited. Who would have thought a few new outfits could make such a difference? Why, even Bill--"
"What about Bill?" Mark's voice was harsh, but Jennifer didn't seem to notice.
"Bill's fallen in love with me all over again! It's like when we first met." Her eyes were shining with happiness, her expression soft and tender. Mark, on the other hand, was in the grips of jealousy. With the control acquired during hundreds of business deals, he was calm and collected.
"How lucky for you both," he managed to say. "Has he popped the big question yet?"
"He might. That's why I'm here," Jennifer breathlessly explained. "He wants to take me out to the fanciest, most expensive restaurant in Manhattan. Could you help me pick out a dress?"
Jennifer's eyes opened wide. "Why not? It's Friday."
"I don't want to be part of this. You want to marry someone who only loves your clothes? What kind of man is that?"
Jennifer stared at him; mouth parted. "You didn't seem to mind when I dressed up for my job interviews."
"You aren't going to be spending the rest of your life with some employer! Wake up, Jennifer! Bill isn't the man for you."
"He is, too!"
Mark rose to his feet and crossed over to his desk. "Then prove it. Put on those bright clothes you usually to wear to this fancy place. Then see if he still proposes."
"I will! And it won't made any difference because I know he loves me!"
"I'll believe it when I see it. Not until then."
"I'll show you my ring, and introduce you to my future husband next Friday." Jennifer's face was pale as she added, "But that's the last time I ever visit. My life's with Bill now."
"Whatever." Mark savagely punched the elevator button. "Good-night, Jennifer."
"Good-bye, Mr. Sheraton."
This time, he didn't bother to correct her.
The next Friday rolled around. Mark was miserable. Of course Bill would marry her. Any fool would marry a woman like Jennifer. No one was crazy enough to throw away happiness because of a tie-dyed print and some beaded sandals. His only hope was that Jennifer had enough sense to call it off--or that Bill would take a long walk off a short pier. Mark groaned aloud.
He should never have sent her off to Bill. Instead, he should have thrown his arms around her and kissed her senseless. He should have told her he loved her. He didn't care what she wore or how she looked, save for her lovely smile. More than once he'd picked up his cell phone and called her number, but each time he stoppped short of punching in the last number.
Baron stretched and yawned, then whimpered.
"She's not coming until Friday, and I just walked you. So lay down and be quiet."
The dog didn't obey. Instead he whimpered again, and came to lay his head in Mark's lap. Mark scratched his dog's ears, patted the muscled neck.
"Thanks to me, pup, she's off getting engaged to some idiot. He'll probably make her cut her hair and dye it blonde. Can you believe it? What a waste." For both of us.
The doorman buzzed his speaker. Mark rose, cursing. He was in no mood for company, until he heard it was Jennifer.
"Send her up."
Jennifer had been crying. Mark's chest wrenched at the sight.
"Well, you were right." The cheerful colors of her tropical print wrap-around dress clashed with her sad face. "Bill was all set to propose until he saw me like this."
"He broke it off?" Please, please say he broke it off!
"I'm so sorry." That's a lie. I'm not sorry at all! Lucky me, the man's an idiot!
"Bill said I was embarrassing him in public. Said I dressed like a little kid--that I didn't look mature enough for the restaurant."
Mark was incensed. If Bill was around, he'd cheerfully wring his neck, and let Baron gnaw on the remains down to the last bone. "He has nerve. And no class. None whatsoever."
"That's what he said. I had no class. Wouldn't fit in with his workers and lifestyle." She wiped her eyes, pulling black streaks of mascara down her cheeks. She rarely wore mascara.
"Don't you believe it! You're a class act, all the way. Bill's the loser."
"I guess I...kind of figured that out. But I really liked him."
Liked. Not loved. That means she'll get over it.
"Any man who can't see beyond some knock-offs and fancy makeup isn't worth it." He passed her a tissue, and gently squeezed her free hand.
"I know." Jennifer sniffed, then smiled. "But I'm not here to cry on your shoulder. I wanted to tell you I got the job at that other gallery. I'm finally going to vet school."
"Thanks. I'm very excited."
Baron rose from his spot under the piano and padded over to her chair. She dropped to her knees and gave the dog a big hug. Baron collapsed on the floor, all four legs waving in the air as he begged Jennifer to rub his belly. She obliged; the tropical print of her skirt outlined brightly against the lab's black fur. Mark wished he was as close to her as the dog.
"I had to tell you the good news," she said, keeping her eyes low. "Also, I'll keep house-sitting, if you want."
Mark's heart gave a big leap in his chest, then he reeled it in. "Are you doing this for all your other customers?"
"Nope, just you. If Baron needs me, please give me a call."
Just us. No one else. Mark felt hope cast rainbow-colored hues about the room. "I'll take you back under two conditions."
Confused, Jennifer tilted her head up.
“One, you have to wear these again. Starting now.”
He passed her the parrot earrings
"I wonder what happened to them," and she immediately exchanged the hoops for the parrots.
Mark boldly reached for her hands, and took them in his own. "I want us to be friends, not just worker and boss."
"Friends?" Jennifer echoed.
"You know, eat out together, take in a movie once in awhile, walk the dog in the park on the weekend, use each other’s first names... That kind of friend. But no pressure." For now. Then soul mate and wife, if you'll have me.
"Well, you can never have too many friends," Jennifer replied in a shaky voice.
Mark pulled her to her feet. Jealous, Baron softly woofed his approval, and moved toward them. Mark smiled, and gently touched the parrot in her right ear. The earring swayed, but Mark's eyes were only on Jennifer.
"How about if you and I go out for root beer floats and hot pretzels? Baron, too. I'm buying."
Jennifer gave him that lovely smile, the one he'd dreamed of night after night.
"I think I'd like that...Mark."