Jeff Mauro laughed. “Well, he does live in the Hamptons. Not exactly a place for the economically challenged.”
“Maybe, but he never lets that go to his head, you know? He’s really down to earth, and he has a big heart.”
Jeff was touched by Alex’s loyalty to Geoffrey. He knew he was the same way himself. “But you
“True,” Alex admitted. “On the other hand, he’s great with his kids. He spends lot of time with them. Like you do with Lorenzo.”
Seven-year-old Lorenzo was Jeff’s pride and joy. He loved spending time in the kitchen with him, and Lorenzo was a natural when it came to cooking. Jeff liked to brag he would follow in his father’s footsteps someday.
“You two are going out on Halloween, right?” Alex asked.
“Absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He scraped up what was left of the food on his plate with a contented sigh and glanced at GZ. The regal cat was contently licking his paws from the comfort of Alex’s lap. Something nagged at the back of Jeff’s mind, but he couldn’t put his finger on what the problem was. He was supposed to do something at some particular time, but what was it?
Oh damn! He mentally snapped his fingers. How could he have forgotten? He wasn’t supposed to stay all evening. He had to make an exit early enough to change places with GZ, and then they would both make their reappearances in new costumes. Except Jeff’s wouldn’t be a costume, exactly. He’d be coming as his shifter alter-ego, a champagne-colored labradoodle.
Jeff yawned widely then chuckled. “Guess all this food is catching up to me,” he said, hoping his laugh didn’t sound at all fake. “I think I’m going to head back to the hotel, maybe call my fam and tell them good night before I get some sleep.” Which was a bit of a white lie, but one that couldn’t be proven without talking to his wife and son, and who would go to the trouble of doing that, and why would they?
“Good idea,” Alex said. “That reminds me. I should call GZ and see how he’s doing. I thought he was going to show up tonight. I hope he’s not sick.”
“I don’t think so,” Jeff said hastily. “In fact, I think he’s just running late. You know how he is.”
Wrong thing to say. Geoffrey Zakarian was never late for anything. He was the king of prompt. Jeff grimaced inwardly. Of all the stupid things to say about GZ, saying that to Alex Guaranaschelli was really stupid. She knew GZ better than just about anyone.
But Alex didn’t have any smarmy comebacks or witty retorts denouncing Jeff’s blatant lie. “I’ll wait a little bit and see if he shows up before I go all concerned friend on him. I’ll catch you later, Jeff. Nice talking to you.”
“You too, Alex. We should hang out more.” He reached for his companion, but GZ was already springing into action. He leapt into Jeff’s arms in one agile motion. Jeff positioned the feline beneath his arm, where he could still scratch the top of his head, and they made their way through the partygoers, bidding farewells as he went to the people he knew. Once outside, he waited patiently as the valet brought his rental car around. Jeff thanked him, settled GZ in the passenger seat, took the wheel and drove off.
But not very far. His destination was less than a mile away. He and GZ had met up in a deserted parking lot of a restaurant that was only open for breakfast and lunch. GZ had left his car there, now it was Jeff’s turn to leave his vehicle and shift. He waited for GZ to shift first. Once the chef was himself once more, he stretched his legs, then reached into the glove compartment and retrieved his glasses.
“Quite the soiree,” he commented. “We fooled them all, I think.”
“I think so too,” Jeff agreed. “Alex seemed quite taken with you, didn’t she? Of course, you made it easy by jumping into her lap like that.”
GZ laughed. “Just playing the part,” he said. “C’mon, it’s your turn. I’ll just grab my costume out of the back of my car. Be right back.”
Jeff watched as GZ exited his rental and approached his own luxurious sedan. He retrieved his costume from the car then disappeared into the shadows. Jeff waited for him to return, so he could get a good look at what his friend was wearing. He knew what GZ had told him, but seeing was even better. GZ had such good taste, he was going to look posh, Jeff just knew it. And sure enough, when GZ returned, he did not disappoint.
Geoffrey looked very elegant indeed. Jeff didn’t know what the names of everything was, but the fawn-colored pants flared at the hips and then narrowed into tall black boots. GZ wore a white ruffled shirt beneath a vest that may have been brocade, Jeff wasn’t sure. A dark wine jacket that ended just above Geoffrey’s waist completed the ensemble, along with a black top hat and a walking stick.
“Wow, you’re quite the dandy,” Jeff commented in admiration. “Who did you say you were, again?”
“You hit the nail on the head, old chap,” GZ said in a faux British accent then laughed at his own wit.
“Just call me Beau Brummell, one of the most famous dandies of all time.”
“Beau Brummell,” Jeff repeated the name. “Well, you certainly look spiffy, Mr. Zakarian. You should win a prize for that outfit.”
Geoffrey smiled. “You flatter me, Mr. Mauro. Well, you about ready to go back to the party?” He glanced significantly at Jeff’s unaltered state.
“Oh yeah, right. Let me change real quick. You sure you’re okay with me being in your car?”
“I trust you not to have an accident.” They shared a quick laugh before Jeff shifted into his dog self and GZ opened the car door for him.
The party was still in full swing when they arrived. Geoffrey had brought a leash for his canine companion—with Jeff’s permission. They were greeted by admiring comments and catcalls when they walked through the door.
“I thought you were going to dress up, GZ.” Anne Burrell approached them wearing a smile and carrying a drink. She eyed GZ up and down. “Isn’t that what you wear every day?”
Jeff yipped his laughter as best he could under the circumstances. He knew she was teasing but she was also right that GZ dressed better than the average chef.
“Very funny,” GZ replied. “I’m here as Beau Brummel tonight, what do you think?”
“I think you’re quite the dandy,” Anne said. “Who’s your little friend?” She knelt beside Jeff, cooing at him. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?”
Jeff responded by trying to lap from her glass. Anne held the drink away from him. “Doggies shouldn’t drink, it’s bad for them.” She glanced up at GZ. “What have you been teaching him?”
“Don’t blame me, he has a mind of his own.” GZ chuckled. “I call him The Little Prince. Usually just Prince for short.”
Jeff snuffled against Anne’s cheek before laying a wet slobbery kiss on her. To her credit, she didn’t recoil from his touch or immediately attempt to wipe it off.
“Maybe you should feed him before he takes a bite out of someone,” Anne suggested, rising.
“Good idea,” GZ agreed.
Jeff had already eaten quite a bit, and not all that long ago, but hey, he could probably eat some more if the occasion arose. Which it just had. And to be fair, GZ had only eaten what little Jeff had given him. He must be hungry too.
They parted ways with Chef Anne, heading toward the buffet, greeting people they knew along the way. Well, Geoffrey greeted them in English, while Jeff woofed when required.
At the buffet table, their positions were now reversed, with GZ piling up plates for each of them, Jeff watching from the floor. Jeff was gratified to see his friend pile up a lot of meat on his plate. If only he had opposable thumbs, he could have GZ build him a sandwich. But alas, that was not possible in his current state.
“Well, well, Zakarian, about time you showed up. I was about to send out the St. Bernards,” a familiar voice came from behind them. Jeff raised his eyes to find Alex standing beside GZ, wearing an impish grin.
“If I’d known that, I’d have waited somewhere for the booze to arrive.” GZ returned her grin with one of his own. “I’d give you a hug, love, but I’m a little encumbered.”
“No worries, I’ll get one later.” She turned her attention to Jeff. “Oh my, isn’t he a cute one.” She knelt beside him and ruffled the fur on his head. “What’s your name, little man?”
“How’d you know he’s a he?” Geoffrey raised his eyebrows.
Alex cocked her head, looking up at him. “Oh, I can just tell. Is he a labradoodle? I’m surprised you don’t own an Afghan or a Russian Wolfhound or something.”
“He’s not mine,” Geoffrey hastily interjected. “I mean, he’s with me, but I don’t own him. He belongs to… a friend.”
Well, that might not strictly be true, but there was enough truth in that to keep Geoffrey’s veracity intact.
“Hey guys, you know what? It’s a really nice night for October. Let’s go outside, why don’t we? There’s a veranda at the back of the house with our name on it.” Not waiting for an answer, she took Geoffrey’s arm, first relieving him of the leash with a quick “I got this” and steered him in the direction she wanted to go.
Wrought iron tables had been set up on the patio for the use of the guests, with carved jack-o’-lanterns on each providing light. No one else was in sight. Personally, Jeff didn’t think it was cold, but then he came from Chicago. He was used to single digit temps. Plus, to be fair, he was wearing a thick fur coat.
Geoffrey set the plate of meat on the ground, then sat across from Alex, who had a drink but no food. He arched his eyebrows at her. “Not eating?”
“Not hungry,” she countered. “I ate before you got here. In fact, I was sitting with your friend Jeff.”
“Ah, sorry I missed him. Who did he come as?”
“Dr. Evil. And he brought his own cat. A gorgeous white one. Very elegant. A lot like you.”
Geoffrey laughed. “You’re too kind. You look beautiful, by the way. A veritable goddess.”
Jeff hadn’t paid any attention to what Alex wore before, and now he felt guilty he hadn’t complimented her when he could. But who was she supposed to be?
“How appropriate since I am a goddess.” Alex waved one hand to indicate her costume.
“Artemis?” GZ guessed.
Alex rolled her eyes. “Do you see a bow? No, I’m Athena, goddess of wisdom.”
“I don’t see an owl,” Geoffrey teased.
“You never know,” Alex said mysteriously. “By the way, that cat Jeff brought was adorable. He’s yours, isn’t he?”
“He’s part of the family, yes,” GZ replied evasively.
“Mmhmm,” was all Alex said.
Jeff turned his attention to his plate, wolfing down every last bit. Then he licked the plate for good measure before turning back to Alex and GZ. GZ had pushed his plate away, maybe half eaten. Jeff barked. Silly to let good food go to waste.
“You don’t like the food?” Alex asked.
“Oh yes, it’s good. Not very hungry, that’s all.”
“Or maybe it’s because you filled up on caviar and salmon last time you were here?” Alex suggested.
GZ’s mouth dropped open, and Jeff was too stunned to even bark.
** * *
Alex Guarnaschelli had to smile to herself at the two men’s discomfort. She’d figured them out a long time ago, just hadn’t said anything. Let them keep their little secrets. Until now.
“Boys, you can’t kid a kidder,” she said. “I’m on to you, face it.”
“I-I’m not sure what you mean,” the usually suave and collected GZ bluffed… badly.
“Yeah you do,” Alex said. “You know exactly what I mean. GZ, seriously? How long have we known each other? And Jeff, you weren’t hard to figure out either. Your labradoodle is adorable, by the way. Hyper, like you.” She reached down and patted the dog’s head.
“I have an idea. Let’s go somewhere and celebrate Halloween in our own fashion. Like in those woods.” She pointed to the dark trees that stretched beyond the edge of the property. “Just for a little bit. You know, let it all hang out.”
Geoffrey looked as though he was going to continue to deny what she obviously knew, then gave up the fight. “What do you know about shifters?”
“More than you think.” She glanced around them, but the veranda was still empty, and there was no sign of anyone in that part of the house. “Come on, let’s just do it.”
“Let’s… as in us?” Geoffrey sounded confused.
“Us,” Alex confirmed just before she shifted into a beautiful barn owl. She hooted at them to follow