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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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BOOK: Her Special Charm
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At that point, angered by the gunman's audacity to threaten two old people and feeling as if he had nothing to lose, James uttered a subhuman cry and hurled himself at the gunman. He grabbed his arm, pointing it upward so that the gun discharged into the ceiling. The thug was bigger, but James had picked up a few martial-arts moves along the way. It was all he needed to use the man's size against him. He had the thug pinned down and bleeding within moments.

It was Eli who pulled James off, saying that the thug wasn't worth getting into trouble over. Sophie cried, thanking him over and over again for saving their lives even as she dialed 911.

The realization that he had actually saved them, that
he'd had the power of life and death in his hands and had chosen life, hit him with the force of a well-aimed punch to the gut. It was the first time he'd felt alive since he couldn't remember when.

After the police had come and gone and the furor had died down, Eli and his wife looked him over and came to their own conclusions. He remembered seeing a silent form of communication between the old married couple and Eli asked him if he wanted to have something to eat. Sophie, in poor health at the time, was already shuffling off to prepare what he always thought of as a feast when he looked back on it.

They invited him upstairs. They lived above the store.

And for a time, so did he.

The old couple quietly took him into their home and their hearts, encouraging him to make something of himself. For the first time in his life, he felt as if he were actually part of a family. He enrolled in a junior college, then went on to get his diploma from Queens College, getting a degree in criminology. When he graduated, Eli attended the ceremony alone because Sophie was too ill to come with him. Shortly thereafter, Sophie had died. And James had felt as if he'd lost a mother.

He looked in on Eli from time to time, worried because the man refused to sell his store and retire.

“Retire to what?” Eli would demand. “To watch my bones get old? Not me. They'll find me dead someday, still behind my counter.” James knew he was serious.

When he walked in, the ancient bell that hung against
the door tinkled. A flood of memories came back to him and it took a second to shake them off.

Eli looked up from the counter. “Well, look who's here, Duchess,” he called to the dog in the corner. “He looks vaguely familiar, am I right?” He pretended to scratch the few wispy white hairs on top of his head that kept him from embracing the term
bald
. “But I just can't place the name. Maybe if he came around more often, I'd remember.”

James was familiar with the game. “I was here last week.”

“Two weeks.” Eli held up two thin fingers. “You were here two weeks ago. And three weeks before that. How slowly do you eat these days?” Eli looked him up and down, a critical expression on his face. “Too slowly, I'd say. You're getting skinny, boy.” He shook his head in disapproval. “Girls don't like skinny. They like muscles.” He flexed his own, which were nonexistent.

James's expression was tolerant. He loved the old man the way he never had his own father. “I'm not interested in what girls like, Eli.”

Eli waved a hand at the statement, brushing it aside. “Sure you are. Don't let that one bad experience sour you on the species, boy. She had problems, that one.” He seemed to note the look in James's eyes. “Okay, we won't talk about that.” He spread his hands wide, to encompass the store. “What can I get you?”

The list was short. A few cold cuts, some bread and a jar of mayonnaise. It took Eli less than five minutes
to prepare everything. He shook his head at the items on the counter. “You don't eat enough.”

The subject of food made James think of Constance and her theory about breakfast. She would have gotten along beautifully with Eli. “I eat fine, Eli.”

Eli made a face. “What? Bread and water like a prisoner?”

“Prisoners eat better than that these days, Eli,” he told him patiently.

“See, even prisoners eat better than you.”

In self-defense, James recited the components of his last decent meal. He should have known better. “I had keftedes, spanakopita and dolmadakia just last night.”

Eli scoffed at the menu. “What, in your dreams?'

“On my plate.”

Eli had been there for James when the latter had gotten divorced. Grieved with him, albeit in mutual silence, over his daughter being taken to the opposite coast. And Eli had never given up hope that someday, a woman like his Sophie would come along and win the boy's heart. Eli eyed him now. “You went out to eat?”

“No, someone brought it over.” The moment the words were out, James knew he'd made a mistake.

A light no less bright than a beacon had come into Eli's eyes. “Someone? A pretty someone?”

James was about to say he hadn't noticed, but that would have been a lie. He had noticed. Which was part of the problem. He'd noticed and he didn't want to notice. More than anything, he wanted to be left alone.
Left alone to do his job, to serve and protect, eat and sleep. Nothing more.

He reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”

“It
was
a pretty someone,” Eli cried triumphantly, ignoring the wallet held out in front of him. “Does she have a name?”

Because this was Eli and the man meant well, James held on to his patience far longer than he would have with anyone else. “Everyone has a name, Eli.”

“So?” the man said expectantly, crossing his arms before him. “What's hers?”

“Constance. Constance Beaulieu.”

Eli took it in, nodding his approval. “Good, solid name. She'll bear good babies.”

James felt as if he'd just been broadsided by a torpedo. “Eli!”

Eli seemed unfazed by his tone. “Did Stanley like her?”

The question took James by surprise. Eli was aware of the fact that Stanley didn't take to anyone, except for him.

“Yeah. But she bribed him with food,” he added quickly.

James ignored the look of triumph on the old man's face and tried again, nodding at the food on the counter. “Eli, how much do I owe you?”

“Not nearly as much as I owe you.” Putting his scrawny hand over the wallet, he pushed it back toward James.

James sighed. “This is why I don't come to shop here. You won't let me pay.”

Eli looked at him over the top of the rimless glasses that sat on the tip of his nose. “If I take your money, will you come more often?”

James couldn't lie, he could only do his best. “Maybe.”

“That's what I thought. Put your money away. It's not any good here.” Eli gave James's hand another shove for good measure, then frowned, the ruts on his face growing deeper. “Look, I need a favor.”

“Anything.” And he meant it. Eli was the only person in the world he would ever give his unconditional ascent to like that.

Eli beckoned him over to the rear of the counter as he spoke. There on the floor was a tall, large carton. Inside were five German shepherd puppies, all paws, floppy ears and tails.

“Duchess's last litter. I just can't seem to give these puppies away and they're beginning to eat me out of house and home. They're free, no charge,” he emphasized. “Know anyone who could give one of them the kind of love they need?”

The second Eli asked, James thought of Constance.

Chapter Seven

L
ooking back, James wasn't sure exactly what had come over him. Maybe it was triggered by the look he'd seen in Constance's eyes when she'd told him about losing her pet Labrador. Or maybe it was because he remembered the way she'd seemed to light up when she was petting Stanley.

Or he could just be helping Eli decrease the number of puppies he had to care for.

The last was the only excuse he felt he could deal with. Because Eli was the only person he admitted to himself that he did care about.

He watched the puppies step all over one another, trying to get his attention. Trying more to make a break
for freedom. But the sides of the cardboard box were too high. There were five in all and he had to admit that they were pretty cute. Stanley had looked like that when James had taken him home. Except that Stanley had been the runt of the litter.

James shoved his hands into his back pockets to keep from picking one up. He'd leave the choice up to Eli. “I can take one off your hands.”

Eli looked at him in surprise at the phrasing. “You want another dog?”

James shook his head. “No, Stanley's enough for me right now.” He had no desire for more than one animal running loose in his apartment. As it was, he felt sorry for the dog being confined that way. “He'd be jealous if I brought in one of his half brothers or sisters.”

“Then who's the dog for?” he asked before a light came into his gray eyes. “Hey, is this for Constance?”

James frowned slightly. “You ask too many questions, old man.”

“Hey, it's not like you give up anything easily.” Eli scratched the puppy under her chin. She wiggled against him in pure ecstasy. “They got action figures that talk more than you do. How am I going to know what's going on in your life if I don't ask?”

“Nothing's going on in my life, Eli.” He didn't bother denying that the dog would be for Constance. Eli would just grill him until he came clean. “The woman just mentioned that she loved dogs and she'd lost hers recently. I thought that since you had extras and she had none—”

“Done.” Eli joyfully declared. He transferred the puppy from his chest to James's.

James had no choice but to grab the puppy to keep her from tumbling to the floor. He looked down at the wiggly ball of fur in his arms. He shouldn't have said anything. “Doesn't have to be tonight.”

“Oh yeah, it does,” Eli assured him. “One less mouth to feed,” he explained when James eyed him suspiciously. The old man chuckled as he watched the puppy's hind legs scrambling along James's chest, trying to get a foothold. “Wait, I'll get you a box. You don't want Felicia messing up your car.”

James winced as a nail scraped against his chest. This wasn't turning out to be one of his better ideas. “You named them already?”

Eli was rummaging through possible boxes in his storeroom. “Sure I named them,” he called out. “Makes things easier.” After settling on a box that had the name of a popular breakfast food slapped across the sides, Eli put it on the counter, took Felicia from James and placed the puppy inside. “There. Ready to travel.” His gray eyes crinkled. “Tell Constance I said hello. And bring her around sometime.”

James sighed. He liked Eli, but the man firmly believed that people should go through life in pairs. Although, to his credit, Eli had been dubious about his marriage to Janice, but he'd kept his own council until Janice had split for the West Coast with Dana.

As he petted the puppy, it latched onto his finger. The
sensation of tiny little pinpricks danced all along the length of his finger. He pulled his hand away.

“You're really blowing this way out of proportion, old man.”

“Hey, I can dream, can't I?” Eli patted James's hand warmly. “I want the best for you, Jimmy. And the best is a good woman. My Sophie, may she rest in peace, made my life exciting, gave me a reason to get up every morning, even when we were fighting. Because I knew if we were fighting, we'd be making up. And oh, that making up.” He rolled his eyes comically heavenward.

James would have been lying if he didn't admit to envying Eli what he'd had with his wife. If it hadn't been for the couple and what he'd been privileged to witness firsthand he would have thought that all marriages were comprised of two people yelling at one another.

“They don't make women like Sophie anymore, Eli,” he said quietly.

Eli inclined his head in agreement. “No, but maybe they come close. The point is, keep an open mind.” James began to pick up the box with the puppy with one hand while juggling his grocery bag with the other. “Oh, wait. She'll want some dog food for her.”

Moving quickly for a man approaching the midpoint of his eighth decade, Eli hurried over to the dog-food shelves and scooped up several cans. He deposited them into another bag. It was clearly more than James could manage in one trip.

“I'll walk you to your car,” Eli offered.

But James shook his head. He placed the grocery bag he was holding back on the counter. “It's still ninety degrees outside. Stay here where it's cool. I'll make two trips.”

Eli just gave him a withering look. “When I'm dead, you can boss me around.” Taking both bags, he followed James out to his car.

 

It only occurred to James once he was en route. He didn't know where she lived. He made a quick pit stop home to take care of Stanley's needs, drop off his groceries and try to find Constance's address. Felicia remained in her box, which he temporarily brought into the apartment. Stanley growled his disapproval.

“Now you growl,” he upbraided the dog.

It was easier to find Constance than he'd thought.

Though prepared to tap into the DMV records, Constance turned out to be listed in the first place he looked—the phone book. He would have thought someone of her background wouldn't be, would want her privacy.

But there she was, right in the middle of the page, and it didn't make sense. But then he was beginning to think that she wasn't as easy to figure out as he'd thought.

Not that he was planning on figuring her out. There was absolutely no point to that. It would be a waste of his time, seeing as how he was never going to see her again after tonight. He was just going to give her the dog and go.

End of story.

 

He quickly discovered the story came with an epilogue.

Constance wasn't the kind of woman you could just give something to and then leave. The trouble was, he found this out too late.

She lived in the more exclusive part of the city, in a skyscraper that came with a formidable doorman, who looked as if he'd once played linebacker with one of the pro ball teams. The man obviously would not allow James to go through without some kind of clearance from a tenant.

Without wasting time, James held up his detective's shield and tersely informed him that the puppy in the box was a surprise for Ms. Beaulieu. The harsh, lined face softened instantly. It was apparent that Constance was one of the doorman's favorites. It figured.

“She's going to love it,” the big man assured him. His tone and manner implied camaraderie, as if they both cared about the woman under discussion. And that gave them some kind of bond. “She's been pretty broken up since Whiskey died. That and with her mom passing on made life pretty tough for her. That no-good fiancé of hers took a powder around that time, too.”

The man peered down into the box one last time before holding a door open for an exiting tenant. Looking over the woman's head at James, he winked. “I'd say this is just what she needs.”

James shifted the box. The puppy had created a dampened area on one end and he was anxious about
being able to put the box down somewhere—soon. “Thanks for the vote of approval.”

He realized that the doorman didn't know he was being sarcastic. Instead, the man cheerfully replied, “You're welcome. She's in the penthouse apartment,” the doorman called after him as he walked into an enormous foyer.

The chandelier alone looked as if it would have set him back two years' pay—with overtime. He was definitely outclassed. James pressed for the elevator, and a sleek, mirrored car arrived almost immediately. As he stepped inside, the puppy started to whine. That made two of them, he thought, tapping the bottom of the box lightly.

Being outclassed had never bothered him before because he'd never particularly wanted to be part of any class to begin with. He told himself that things hadn't changed.

The ride to the top floor in the express elevator was quick and painless. And certainly faster his own building's elevator.

After getting off on the top floor, he didn't have to look around to find her apartment. Her apartment
was
the top floor. He rang the bell. Felicia misstepped and tumbled inside the box. He was about to ring the bell a second time when Constance opened the door.

And James came close to swallowing his tongue.

She stood in the doorway barefoot, wearing white shorts that needed an inch or two in length to qualify as cutoffs. A tight hot-pink halter top completed the out
fit, if it could actually be referred to as complete. A large amount of material seemed to be missing. She made up for it in curves.

The cameo was still securely fastened around her neck. James was aware of a great deal of creamy-white skin on display.

He was also aware that he had stopped breathing for a critical amount of time. With effort, he dragged air back into his lungs before he began wheezing and embarrassed himself.

Constance was speechless.

Ordinarily, the doorbell didn't ring without the doorman first alerting her unless it was one of the neighbors dropping by. So when she opened the door to find James standing there, holding a box with a leaping German shepherd puppy, all she could do for a moment was stare.

Coming to, she looked down at the puppy, who seemed desperate to clear the sides of her confinement or die in the effort. An animal with spunk. It was love at first sight.

“May I?” she asked, indicating the puppy.

“Knock yourself out,” James muttered, for the first time wishing he knew how to string more than two words together.

She laughed as the fur ball wiggled against her. A warmth sprang up everywhere the puppy touched. “Are you selling puppies door to door?”

“Yeah.” Try as he might to keep a straight face, amusement curved a small portion of his mouth. “You're the last one.”

He had no idea what made him say something like that. Had no idea really why he'd come or why he was still standing there like some department-store dummy. Outside of the requirements of his job, James didn't put himself out for people, had as little to do with them as possible. He was acting completely against type and that really bothered him.

“Stanley's mother had another litter,” he tacked on belatedly.

Constance smiled at the news. “Sounds like Stanley's mother has a very active social life.”

He shrugged the observation away. “Yeah, whatever. You said you missed having a dog and these were being given away free, so I thought…” His voice trailed off as he hoped she'd jump in and finish the sentence for him. It would have been the merciful thing to do.

“That I'd like one?” she finally guessed when James didn't go on. Her eyes lit up. All her plans about not getting attached to another animal flew right out the window. She was a sucker for a ball of fur and a pink tongue. “Yes, oh yes. I'd love one.”

She held the puppy up at arm's length to get a better look at her new companion. The dog wiggled in the air, eager to get something beneath her feet again. Constance remembered James's story about Stanley.

“Does this one come with a name, too?”

“Felicia.”

“Felicia,” Constance repeated, then nodded her head. “I like it.” Cuddling the dog against herself again, she looked at him, a different kind of warmth than before
spreading through her. It was a kind thing for him to do. “Thank you.”

Thanks made him uneasy, as did the look in her eyes. “Okay, then—” he started to back away, then remembered the bag of provisions at his feet. “Oh, he sent over a bag of dog food for her. In case you didn't have any,” James added, feeling awkward as hell as he tripped over his own tongue.

Damn, she had him talking as if English were his second language. What the hell was going on with him, anyway? This wasn't like him. He was always in control of everything, most of all himself.

Pressing her lips together in order not to giggle as Felicia licked her ear, she tried to focus on what James was saying. “He?”

“My friend. The dog owner.” Why was she asking so many questions? Why couldn't she just say thanks and close the door? It was what he would have done in her place.

“Right.” That would be the man who had given him Stanley. A host of questions popped into her head, questions about his friend, about the dog. About him and why he was doing something so kind. But as James set the bag down inside the door, she saw he was already backing out again.

“You're not leaving, are you?”

He took another step back. One less step required to reach the elevator. And freedom. “Yeah, well, I've got things to see to.”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth, looking
at him hopefully. “Couldn't they wait for a few minutes?”

The moment he looked into her eyes, he knew he had lost the battle.

“Okay,” he relented with a sigh, “a few minutes.” Picking up the bag again, he walked into the penthouse apartment. It was then that he noticed that her rugs were white. A pristine white. White rugs and puppies didn't exactly mix.

“Maybe I should have brought some carpet cleaner along,” he muttered.

The sound of her soft delighted laugh passed through him like smoke through burlap. It left a mark, and he wasn't happy about that.

BOOK: Her Special Charm
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