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Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 1


Vicky


I’M SMUGGLING a tiny white dog named Smuckers into a Manhattan hospital to see his owner, Bernadette Locke. Thanks to a standing appointment at a chandelier-draped dog salon on Fifth Avenue run by a woman who ostensibly loves dogs but might secretly hate them, Smuckers’s facial fur is blow-dried into such an intense puff of white that his eager black eyes and wee raisin of a nose seem to float in a cloud.

There are three things to know about Bernadette: She’s the meanest woman I ever met. She believes I’m some kind of dog whisperer who can read Smuckers’s mind. (I can’t.) And she’s dying. Alone.

The people in her condo building will probably be glad to hear of her passing. I don’t know what she did to earn their hatred. That’s probably for the best.

Bernadette has a son out there somewhere, but even he seems to have washed his hands of her. There is a photo of the son on Bernadette’s cracked fireplace mantel, a toddler with a scowly little dent between fierce blue eyes. Surrounded by people, the little boy manages somehow to look utterly alone.

Back when Bernadette got her terminal diagnosis, I asked her if she’d told her son and whether he might finally come to visit. She brushed off the question with a contemptuous wave of her hand—Bernadette’s favorite way of responding to pretty much anything you say is a contemptuous hand wave. He won’t be coming, I assure you.

I can’t believe he wouldn’t visit her, even now. It’s the ultimate dick move. Your mother is dying alone, jackass!

Anyway, put all of that in a pot and stir it and you have the strange soup of me clicking past a guard, smiling brightly—and hopefully dazzlingly—enough that he doesn’t notice the squirmy bulge in my oversized purse.

Smuckers is a Maltese, which is a toy dog that’s outrageously cute. And Smuckers is the cutest of the cute.

Smuckers and Bernadette Locke made a notorious pair out on the sidewalk in the Upper West Side neighborhood where my little sister and I have our very sweet apartment-sitting gig.

I remember them well. Smuckers would attract people with his insane fluff-ball cuteness, but as the hapless victim drew near Bernadette would say something insulting. Kind of like the human equivalent of a Venus flytrap, where the fly is attracted to the beauty of the flower only to be mercilessly crushed.

Locals learned to stay away from the two of them. I tried—I really did.

Yet here I am, slipping down another chillingly bright hospital hallway, smuggling the little dog in for the third time in two weeks. It’s not on my top ten list of things I want to do with my day. Not even on my top hundred, but Smuckers is Bernadette’s only true friend. And I know what it’s like to be hated and alone.

I know that when you’re hated, you sometimes act like you don’t care as a survival method.

And that makes people hate you more, because they feel like you should look at least a little beaten down.

Bernadette’s hatred was real-life neighborhood hatred; mine was real life plus a fun national online component, but it works the same way, and heaven forbid you should have a cute dog. Or that a picture of you smiling should ever appear on Facebook or Huffpo or People.com.

I know, too, how being hated can build on itself, how sometimes you do things to make people hate you more because it’s better in a certain perverse way. I think only people who have been hated in their life can truly understand that.

I push into the room. “We’re here,” I say brightly, relieved no medical personnel are around. While Smuckers enjoys being in a purse, he prefers to ride with his head out, like the fierce captain of a pleather airship. Needless to say, he’s achieved maximum squirminess. I take him out. “Look, Smuckers—your mom!”

Bernadette is half propped up on pillows. Her skin is sallow and her hair sparse, but what hair she has is energetically white. Her eyes flutter open. “Finally.”

She has a tube in her arm, but that’s all. They’ve taken Bernadette off everything except morphine. They’ve given up on her.

“Smuckers is so excited to see you.” I go over to her bed and set Smuckers next to her. Smuckers licks Bernadette’s fingers, and the love that comes over Bernadette’s face makes her look soft for a moment. Like a nice woman.

“Smuckers,” she whispers. She moves her lips, talking to him. I can’t hear, but I know from past conversations that she’s saying she loves him. Sometimes she confesses she doesn’t want to leave him, doesn’t want to be alone. She’s frightened about being alone.

Feebly she scratches Smuckers’s fur, but she’s focusing hard on me, whispering something fervently. I draw near. Eggplant, she seems to be saying.

“Are you hungry?”

Eggplant…” she says, voice weak.

“Yes, Bernadette?”

“Eggplant makes your complexion…” she winces hard, “…wormlike.” She manages to infuse the word wormlike with incredulous contempt, as though I’ve performed such a feat of fashion monstrosity that she needs to muster all her strength to let me know.

“Damn. I was going for slug-like,” I joke as I adjust Smuckers so that he’s not on her tube.

She sniffs and turns back to Smuckers.

Over the three years I’ve known her, Bernadette has always been judgmental about my fashion choices. Did you get that out of a 1969 catalog for librarians, Vicky? Did JCPenney have a sale on drab pencil skirts? At times I literally seem to hurt her eyes, what with my uninspired ponytails and glasses and whatnot.

I have this suspicion that Bernadette came from money but that her fortune dwindled over the years. Clue one: her apartment is in an expensive neighborhood, but it’s really shabby inside, like it was once grand and went to ruin. Also, her clothes are worn versions of what was expensive maybe fifteen years back. Really, she seems to spend nothing on herself. But Smuckers? Nothing is too good for Smuckers. No expense spared.

I take her hand and put it where Smuckers most likes it so Smuckers will settle down.

“Smuckers,” she breathes.

I have this impulse to set a comforting hand on her arm, but human contact is not something Bernadette would ever want from me.

I’m really only around as an extension of Smuckers, a conduit for Smuckers’s important communications. Other than that, I’m chopped liver. If Bernadette could somehow automate me or keep me in a sardine tin with just the corner rolled up so my voice can escape, she would.

She looks up at me expectantly. I know what she wants. What does Smuckers have to say?

I’m at a loss for what to say, or rather, what Smuckers might say. I never signed up for this pet whisperer thing with her, and what with her being on her deathbed, it seems especially wrong.

But she’s waiting. Glaring. It’s Smuckers or nothing.

I suck in a breath and put on my whisperer expression, which I would describe as a curious listening face. “Smuckers says that you shouldn’t be afraid to die,” I say.

She waits. She wants more.

“He wants you to know it’s going to be okay, even though it might not feel like that right now.”

She nods, mumbles to Smuckers.

In terms of subject matter, this is getting into new territory. Smuckers has typically confined himself to lifestyle commentary—requests for certain styles of neck scritching or flavors of Fancy Whiskas dog treats.

Now and then he’ll speculate on the antics of pigeons outside the window. He has certainly never betrayed any divine wisdom about death or special understanding of esoteric secrets of the cosmos.

But I can tell from Bernadette’s face that she likes hearing that Smuckers said that.

“Vicky,” she says to Smuckers. “Vicky will care for you.”

“You know I will, Bernadette,” I say. “I’ll care for Smuckers as if he were my own flesh and blood.”

Though not literally. I don’t plan on racing around Central Park eating goose poop with him.

“He’ll live like a little king,” I amend.

Bernadette mumbles something and I settle into the surprisingly luxurious, leather-upholstered chair in the roomy private room they’ve given her. This is the hospice wing of one of the larger Manhattan hospitals where the news often talks about overcrowded conditions.

Maybe she has good insurance or something.

Bernadette scritches Smuckers’s neck. “Love you, Pokey,” she whispers.

I quietly scroll through Instagram, one ear attuned to the door, but all I hear is the sound of footsteps and muted conversations going up and down the hall, along with the occasional intercom announcement. I want to make this visit last as long as possible.

Smuckers will live like a little king, but maybe not a king of a wealthy country. More like a king of an impoverished nation, but one that loves their king. That’s the best I can do for him.

I took Smuckers home two weeks ago, the day before Bernadette went into the hospital. It wasn’t long before I discovered that the raw frozen food he gets is more expensive than spun gold, and I can only imagine what it costs to re-up his puffball hairstyle at his monthly standing appointment at the aforementioned dog salon, which has an original Warhol painting of a poodle in the waiting area.

I’ll just let you do the math on that one.

So, no, I don’t envision keeping Smuckers in the exact life he’s accustomed to. I’ve supported my little sister, Carly, ever since she was nine years old and I want her to have everything I never did. I want her to feel safe and dream big.

And if there’s some left over for a fabulous blowout, it’ll be her in that chair and they won’t have to tie her up to do it like poor Smuckers.

She’s sixteen now. It’s hard to raise a teen in Manhattan, but somehow we make it, thanks to my Etsy store of funky dog accessories. Someday I’ll break into women’s jewelry, but for now, it’s all sequined bow tie dog collars all the time.

Bernadette’s lips move. Nothing comes out except the word aloneI don’t want to be alone.

I feel a pang in my heart.

It’s strange how a long life can be reduced to a darkened hospice room, a stranger scrolling Instagram, and a little white dog.

Though I suppose it’s no more strange than my playing the part of a pet whisperer, which I never in my life wanted to do, and a hundred percent blame my friend Kimmy for.

Kimmy is the one who put on a festival to raise money for her animal shelter, the one who looked at me so beseechingly, holding a colorful scarf and hoop earrings, when the real pet whisperer didn’t show up for the pet whisperer booth.

Just make shit up, she said. It’ll be fun, she said.

I left Carly to handle the booth selling my dog accessories and put on the scarf.

I’d said whatever came into my head that day. A lot of pets had complaints about their food. Most wanted the owners to play with them more. Sometimes, if the companion person seemed sad, the pet would express intense empathy and love. I think, no matter who you are, your pet cares about you.

Sometimes I’d say how much the pet enjoys it when they talk to them or when they sing to them, because doesn’t everyone talk and sing to their pets?

Then Bernadette came by, steely and outraged, smashing the pavement with her cane alongside a tiny, energetic toy dog.

She threw down two five-dollar bills and demanded to know what Smuckers wanted to tell her. I honestly couldn’t tell whether she wanted to debunk me or if she really wanted to know.

So I took the little dog in my lap and rubbed his fuzzy little ears and started talking. I’d found, over the course of my afternoon as a pet whisperer, that the more flattering you are, the more the people buy it.

Smuckers loves you so much, I’d told her. He knows you think you’re too slow for him, but he doesn’t care. He loves you. And he mostly loves to hear you sing. Maybe you can’t run around with him, but he wants you to know that your singing is amazing to him. He thinks you’re beautiful when you sing.

When I looked up, her eyes were shining. She really believed me. I hadn’t felt like a scammer until then. She asked for my card, but I told her it was just for fun.

She didn’t believe I didn’t have a card. Like I was evilly keeping my card from her.

I told her that if she just watched Smuckers closely enough, she could do it, too.

She bit back something about not all of us being pet whisperers and then proceeded to try and get my contact information from other people there, who refused to give it, and who she then insulted.

She finally left, and I thought I was home free, but New York has a way of pulling random people into each other’s lives. And you can be sure that the exact person you don’t want to run into in the city of millions will show up as a regular where you work or shop, or in Bernadette’s case, as a frequent sitter on the bench Carly and I had to pass on the way to her school.

I look up from Instagram to see Smuckers at the edge of the bed, like he wants to jump down. I go over and give him a vigorous ear rub and he circles and settles.

The last time I was here visiting, a priest came in, offering to say a few words, and Bernadette called him a sewer rat in the process of banishing him from the room. Sewer rat is one of her favorite insults for neighbors, mail carriers, clerks, and the revolving roster of maids she has in.

But never for Smuckers. I stay at the bedside, feeling so bad for her.

“Smuckers wants you not to be scared,” I say. “Smuckers says you’re not alone, and you won’t be.”

Her dry lips move. If I could give her anything it would be some way for her not to be scared, but it’s pretty unavoidable in her situation. I don’t care what religion you are, the unknown is always scary, and death is the ultimate unknown quantity.

A nurse comes in just then, entering stealthily. She spots Smuckers before I can flick the sheet over him like I usually manage to do. “You can’t have a dog in here!”

I shamble on a surprised face. “The other nurses didn’t say anything about the dog…” Since they didn’t see the dog.

“You need to remove the animal.”

“Get out,” Bernadette says hoarsely.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse says. “Animals not allowed.”

I go over. “Please,” I say under my breath. “The dog’s all she has. You need to give her a break.”

“Hospital regulations.”

I look back over at Bernadette, who is doing a nervous clutching thing on Smuckers’s fur, something Smuckers won’t tolerate too long. I go back over and put a protective hand on Bernadette’s to get her to stop it.

“A few more minutes,” I say. “If he was a service animal you’d let him in here. Can’t you just pretend he’s a service animal? I mean, he pretty much is one.”

“You’ll have to remove the animal.”

“A few more minutes,” I say.

“I’m getting security.” She spins and leaves. Security.

I turn to Bernadette. “The animal,” I say. “Please.”

She’s only paying attention to Smuckers, though. Her breathing is erratic. She’s upset.

Security will throw us out, and I probably won’t get Smuckers in here again. Which means this is the last time Bernadette sees Smuckers, and maybe she knows it.

I feel sad and helpless, but also like everything is important now. Like I have an important job to do as fake pet whisperer.

That’s when I make up the story.

“Smuckers has something to tell you, Bernadette,” I say. “He has something to say that he never told you before, and he needs to say it.”

She moves her lips. Nothing comes out, but I know what it is.

Tell me.

That’s what she always says when I announce that Smuckers has something important to communicate.

Whenever I channel Smuckers’s thoughts, I use the curious listening face and also change my voice just a tiny bit. I hate it when my water bowl is dry, Bernadette. Sometimes I get so very thirsty! Or, You shouldn’t let that sketchy building handyman in anymore, Bernadette, unless somebody you trust is with you. I don’t like him very much. The food in the refrigerator smells very yucky. Maybe it’s old.

Smuckers uses the word very a lot.

In addition to household matters, Smuckers is a good one for morale and encouragement. Your flowered shirts are very pretty. Please open the curtains, Bernadette, I love watching the birds. I feel very happy when you sing.

The sound of Bernadette’s singing was a major passion of Smuckers’s, according to me. And Bernadette was actually kind of a good singer, as it turned out, from the bits I heard over the three years I’ve been at it.

“This is very important. Are you listening? Smuckers wants you to know that he has a brother. A twin.”

Bernadette seems to still. She’s listening.

“It’s painful for Smuckers to remember. Smuckers’s twin brother died as a puppy. His name is Licky Lickardo.” Bernadette’s lips quirk.

Does she like that name? She was a huge I Love Lucy fan in her day.

“What dimwit named him that?” she croaks.

Oh. “Umm…that’s not important. Licky Lickardo lives on the other side. He looks just like Smuckers. Smuckers has told Licky all about you. Licky needs a friend so badly, and he’s waiting for you on the other side. Just beyond the light. And he’s just like Smuckers. You’ll totally think it’s Smuckers. And you’ll know his thoughts. You won’t need me.”

I once read about this ancient island tribe once where if a king died, he’d have his queen and servants and pets killed and buried with him, believing that they would then accompany him to the afterlife.

This Licky Lickardo thing kind of delivers on that, but in a less psycho way—she’s getting the pet and the special whisperer services in the afterlife or whatever she believes in, but the whisperer and pet get to stay in Manhattan.

In fact, Bernadette’s breathing seems to calm.

“So here’s the deal. I’ll take care of Smuckers, like I promised, but Smuckers needs a promise from you. Are you listening?”

She moves her lips. Tell me.

“Smuckers very much needs to know if you’ll take care of his brother. Licky is just like Smuckers, Bernadette. Smuckers can’t wait for you to meet him.”

The way her hand changes, grasping Smuckers’s neck, I think she likes it.

I keep on.

“Smuckers says you’re going to love Licky so much. Oh, wow! Smuckers says that Licky is wagging his tail right now—he totally can’t wait. He’s wagging up a storm, just like Smuckers does when he sees you coming.”

Bernadette’s face is definitely softening. Is this wrong? I don’t know. But then again, I’ve gone a long way down the road of wrong already with this thing.

“Smuckers has something else important to tell you. Instructions! He says you should sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow the minute you get to the other side. Smuckers says to follow the light and you’ll see Licky Lickardo wagging his tail. And you’re to immediately sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“What the hell is going on here?”

I sit up, a rabbit in the headlights—or more like a virgin sacrifice, pinned by the furious gaze of a man in a perfectly tailored suit, a prince of a power broker currently standing in the doorway, though the word standing doesn’t quite cover it. He’s owning it. Dominating it. Lording over all the world from it like an entitled god.

His brown hair is impossibly lustrous, touched with gold where the light hits. There’s something charmed about him, but more like wickedly charmed. His eyes are cobalt blue. Icy daggers, aimed to kill.

Kill me.

How long has he been standing there?

“What the hell—?”

Bernadette begins again to clutch at Smuckers.

“Shhh,” I whisper, putting a finger to my lips.

He straightens, as though shhh is a strange command to his ears, and I suppose it probably is. This is not the kind of guy you say shhh to. “What are you filling my mother’s head with?”

Mother? This straightens me right up. This is the son?

“Well…” I cross my arms. “About time you visited.”

He scowls and strides commandingly across the room.

He reminds me of a vengeful god in one of those ancient paintings that hang in the Met. Current mood: destroy the earth. But this god wears a suit instead of flowing robes. Vengeful god 2.0: the hot-but-scary Wall Street edition—born hard, deadly, and dressed to kill it in the boardroom.

It seems impossible that this man was ever that lost little boy in the photo on Bernadette’s mantel.

He sets a disposable cup on a table next to a small stack of empty cups. There are several iThings there next to a man’s cashmere coat slung over the arm.

So he’s been here. For a while.

He turns back to me. “Smuckers says to follow the light? He says to sing Over the Rainbow? A brother named Licky Lickardo on the other side? Care to explain any of that?”

Definitely not, I think.

I turn to Bernadette, like maybe she might care to explain for me, but her eyes are closed. Is she faking sleeping? That would be so Bernadette. “Bernadette,” I say. “Hey, tell your son—”

My words die as he nears, looming over her on the other side of her bed. He gazes down at her with an expression I can’t read.

I wait, cowering in my sensible pumps.

“Was she…awake?”

“Well, yeah,” I whisper.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

He’s silent for a long time, still with that unreadable expression, but a small dent forms between his brows, like he’s working something out in his mind—something troubling or distressing. It’s here I see a flash of that boy in the photo.

“She wanted to see Smuckers,” I explain. “I was just…trying to help.”

When he looks up at me a second later, the boy is gone. Maybe the whole thing was an illusion. “Help,” he bites out with emphasis, “is a funny name for trying to make a dying woman believe you’re communicating with her dog. Giving her bizarre messages from her dog.” He pulls out his phone. “Maybe you can explain your help to the police.”

My heart pounds. Communicating with her dog, bizarre messages from her dog—that is what I was doing.

“She just wanted to see him.”

He gives me a disgusted look. “And you’re happy to accommodate. If there’s something in it for you.”

I raise myself up straight as possible because I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“She likes to interact with Smuckers.” I swallow. “She doesn’t want to be alone.”

“Harry,” he says, strolling out into the hall and speaking in soft tones. Is Harry the police?

“Bernadette.” I touch her hand. “I have to go, Bernadette.”

She stirs. Did she even hear?

The son returns a moment later. “They’re coming.” His steely glare twists through my belly like a corkscrew.

I won’t let him cow me. Years ago I swore I’d never let a rich asshole scare me or bully me ever again—not ever again.

So I glare right back.

It comes to me at this point that there’s something oddly familiar about him. He’s got that classic Hollywood-leading-man look—at least, if your Hollywood movie was about a darkly mesmerizing titan of industry. If your movie was about a friendly cowpoke this guy probably wouldn’t work out, unless you wanted him to turn dangerous at the end and take over the whole town.

“Good,” I say. “Let them come.” I don’t mean it. The last thing I need is the cops.

He scowls. “Mom,” he says, looking down at her.

There’s this awkward silence where she doesn’t reply, and I think I should go, but I don’t want to rip Smuckers away.

“You’re telling me she seemed…conscious before?” He asks it remotely and without looking up.

“She was talking,” I say. “Petting Smuckers.”

Just then, a beefy bald-headed guy in a security uniform comes in, followed by two nurses. “You’re going to have to take the animal out. Now,” the security guard growls.

Bernadette’s hand is over Smuckers’s fuzzy little back.

“Leave him,” I plead. “She’ll be so upset.”

Nobody’s listening to me; their attention riveted on the son who has chosen this moment to turn the harsh light of his wrath onto the guard and the nurses flanking him.

I take a deep breath. I feel like I haven’t breathed since he entered the room.

Calmly, the son cocks his head. He and the security guard are about the same size—the security guard might even be a bit beefier, but if it came to a fight, my money would be on the son. He has an aura of power and confidence. He crackles with it.

The security guard is no wimp, though. He stares right back, all testosterone. It’s like watching Animal Kingdom, Midtown Manhattan Edition.

“If my mother wants the dog by her side,” he says calmly, “my mother gets the dog by her side.”

“Rule’s a rule,” the security guy growls. “You’ll remove the animal or I’ll remove it and hand it over to animal control.”

Animal control? It?

The son’s blue eyes sparkle with humor, as if the security guard’s threats are mere clownish whispers in a world constructed for him and him alone.

He addresses the assembled staff as a group. “Do you all understand who this is?”

It’s Smuckers, biotches! I think.

The complaining nurse folds her arms. “I don’t care. This is a pet-free facility.”

I rivet my attention to the son. I didn’t like him when he was turning his hard-ass Blue Magnum gaze on me, but now his asshole power is on my side, or at least Smuckers’s side.

“This is Bernadette Locke, head of the Locke Foundation, the entity that funded this wing, the medical teaching and research facility on the other side of that skyway, and probably your paychecks.”

I straighten. What?

More people come into the room, among them, a woman who seems to be some kind of administrator. “Henry Locke,” she says, grasping his hand. She apologizes for the mix-up, uttering words of empathy, admiration, gratitude. If he had a ring, she’d kiss it. She’d make out with it.

“…and of course Mrs. Locke can have her dog stay with her as long as she pleases,” she continues. “With our sincerest apologies—we had no idea that the swing shift was not informed…” She mumbles on, all excuses.

“Thanks,” I say. “It means a lot.”

They all look at me, like you’re still here?

The son points at me. “You. Out.”

“Wait. I promised Bernadette—I promised her I’d care for Smuckers. She asked me specifically to care for him, you know, when…”

He huffs out an exasperated breath and holds out his hand. “Card.”

I grab my wallet, and hand over my Etsy business card, quickly drawing away from the brush of his hand, the sizzle of his orbit.

The card has a photo of a tough-looking German shepherd wearing a pink-sequined bow tie.

He scowls down at it for a long time. Really scowls.

I’m imagining that he’s thinking of all the things he’d do if somebody tried to put a bow tie dog collar on him. And I’m guessing none of his scenarios end with the bow tie dog collar being in any way recognizable as a bow tie dog collar.

“She wants to know Smuckers has a home and—”

“I comprehend the meaning of care for Smuckers,” he says. “We’ll send Smuckers in a car.”

A car. That’s how Mrs. Locke would always say it. Send a car. I thought she meant an Uber or a cab all this time.

But it comes to me, standing there, that Bernadette Locke belongs in an entirely different world than I belong to, and that in her world a car is a limo.


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