To prove her innocence, Melanie digs into the victim’s shady past and uncovers a juicy scandal that cost Evan his marriage and, possibly, his life. Melanie realizes that booking the real culprit will require gathering her suspects together at the next Bite Club meeting. What she doesn't know is Aunt Peg has been hiding some explosive secrets of her own—secrets that, once unleashed, could pit Melanie against an unpredictable killer bent on bringing this story to an abrupt end . . .
“If you like dogs, you’ll love Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis mysteries!”
—Joanne Fluke, New York Times bestselling author
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It started as a joke. After all, who would name a friendly book club Bite Club? Well, we did. First, because we were all dog lovers, some of whom had met as fellow dog show exhibitors. And second, because when we formed the group we decided to concentrate on reading mystery novels. Books with bite.
Plus, we all liked the idea of belonging to a club that sounded as though Brad Pitt might stop by on occasion.
Especially Terry Denunzio. Terry always has plenty to say — and all of it is entertaining. He didn't back down when the rest of us told him that he was barking up the wrong tree because Brad Pitt wasn't gay. Instead, Terry just sat there and smiled like he knew something we didn't.
It wouldn't be the first time. Terry is one of my best friends and I've seen him in action. I'm pretty sure if anyone could change Pitt's preferred orientation, Terry would be the one to do it.
You might be wondering what all that had to do with books. Truthfully, not much. We weren't even halfway through our first meeting when it occurred to me that maybe the books were just a good excuse for us to get together and enjoy each other's company.
And drink a little wine while we were at it.
The idea for the book club had arisen from my own love of reading. I'd envisioned spending a few evenings a month with a small group of like-minded people. Good friends coming together to share stories and swap reading recommendations.
I'd begun by recruiting my former neighbor, Alice Brickman. She and I had met years earlier when our older children were infants. The shared trials and tribulations of motherhood had brought us together, then quickly solidified our bond. Since I'd remarried and moved to a different part of town, Alice and I didn't see nearly as much of each other as we used to. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to reconnect.
Next I'd called Claire Walden Travis, a family member by virtue of being married to my ex-husband, which also made her stepmother to my older son, Davey. She'd been delighted to become part of the group. An organizer by nature and profession, she'd brought a list of potential book choices to the first meeting to get us started.
Then I'd asked Terry to join us. He's the longtime partner of professional dog handler Crawford Langley. He's also the best looking man I've ever met. I'd like to be able to tell you that Terry's flashy exterior conceals hidden depths, but not really. With Terry, what you see is what you get. He's exuberant in his love for dogs, for his friends, and for cozy mysteries. In other words, he was a perfect addition to the club.
It was about that time that my Aunt Peg found out about my plans. And overnight my little reading group suddenly became a Big Deal. That tended to happen whenever Margaret Turnbull got involved with anything. For decades she'd been one of the country's premier breeders of Standard Poodles. Now she was a much-in-demand dog show judge. Aunt Peg was accustomed to having her opinions matter.
She also had a habit of bossing people around. Especially her relatives. Most especially me. Is it any wonder that she hadn't been among the first people I'd called? Apparently that made no difference. Aunt Peg simply assumed that she would be included. And unfortunately none of us were brave enough to dispute that assumption.
True to form, Aunt Peg first wanted to iron out a few details.
"Why are you forming a book club?" she wanted to know. "Aren't you busy enough already?"
"Well, sure. But I always make time to read."
Aunt Peg looked dubious. She was already approved to judge the Non- Sporting and Toy Groups. Her idea of reading for entertainment probably meant perusing the breed standards of new dog breeds she planned to add to her repertoire. Either that or the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"Books?" she asked.
"Of course, books. Mostly mystery novels."
Aunt Peg blinked twice. And remained mute. That was a first.
Over the years, she and I had been involved in the solving of more than a few mysteries ourselves. Surely my choice of reading material made perfect sense.
Aunt Peg still didn't look convinced by the wisdom of my idea. Or maybe she just wanted to continue arguing. There's nothing she enjoys more than a good verbal sparring match. I'm pretty sure she thinks vocal confrontation should be a national pastime. Like baseball games and eating junk food.
As for me, I wasn't even sure why we were having this conversation. After all, no one — least of all me — had invited her to join the book club. Nevertheless, I felt the need to justify my decision. Yet again. For some reason, Aunt Peg always had that effect on me.
Well, on everybody really. We all did our best to shape up when Aunt Peg was around. Being related to her was like living with my own personal cyclone. Or maybe runaway train.
"Reading is fun," I told her. "It's educational. It reduces stress."
"Of course, it's fun. I do it all the time. You're not the only one who enjoys a good mystery novel." Then she thought about what I'd said and stopped. "Stress? Why on earth would you feel stressed?"
Plenty of reasons. And I probably didn't have to point out that the first one was standing right in front of me — trying to hijack my book club idea and turn it into something she liked better.
But beyond that, I lead a busy life. I'm a wife, a mother of two wonderful sons, and a special needs tutor at a private school. I also have a houseful of Standard Poodles. Five to be exact, plus a small spotted mutt named Bud.
Sometimes I wondered if there would be enough hours in the day to get everything done. Then I stopped wondering and started doing. Every mother knows how that works.
I narrowed my eyes at Aunt Peg. It was difficult to produce a full-on glare since I'm five and a half feet tall and the person I wanted to intimidate towered over me by more than six inches. Aunt Peg was nearing seventy. She had the posture of a ballerina and shoulders that would do a linebacker proud. It was a formidable combination.
"Do you want to join or not?" I asked.
"I'm considering. ..."
I sighed under my breath. "Considering what exactly?"
"Whether or not I want to let other people dictate my choice or reading material."
"You're right," I agreed — probably too quickly. "That sounds like a terrible idea."
Aunt Peg wasn't fooled by my easy acquiescence. "You're trying to get rid of me."
"Not at all. I'm simply enabling you to make the responsible choice."
"I'd be delighted to join your little group," she decided abruptly. "Can we hold the meetings at my house?"
And already she wanted to be in charge.
"You can hold some of them at your house," I said. "Everyone will take turns hosting. We'll meet twice a month, every other Tuesday night."
Aunt Peg nodded. I was pretty sure she'd stopped listening to me. "I might have some other ideas for new members...."
And that was when things began to spiral beyond my control. Six people had attended the first meeting, held at my house. Seven had shown up at Alice's home two weeks later. Now it was the night of our third meeting, scheduled to take place at Aunt Peg's. Judging by the glee with which she'd volunteered to serve as hostess, I suspected she might be planning on a crowd.
Not for the first time when it came to my dealings with Aunt Peg, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.
* * *
Aunt Peg lives in the back country area of Greenwich, Connecticut. Her house has clapboard siding and a wraparound porch, and once served as the family home for a working farm. Forty years earlier, Aunt Peg and her husband, Max — then newly married — had purchased the property to found their Cedar Crest Kennel. Over the ensuing decades it had been home to dozens of champion Standard Poodles.
My car window was open to admit the warm, early July breeze when I turned into Aunt Peg's driveway. Max had been deceased for a decade now, and the kennel building behind the house had burned to the ground the previous summer. For a moment I imagined that the scent of that long-gone smoke still lingered in the air.
Glancing in that direction, I squinted toward the descending sun and saw nothing but a wide stretch of uninterrupted lawn where the building had once stood. Of course, the thought had been fanciful. I quickly dismissed it and parked the Volvo toward the rear of the empty driveway.
The meeting was scheduled to start at seven. Fifteen minutes early, I was obviously the first to arrive.
Visitors to Aunt Peg's house were met with an effusive canine greeting — offered in the belief that if you minded being mobbed by her Standard Poodles, she probably didn't want to know you anyway. By now I was accustomed to the onslaught. Her dogs and I were old friends. Not only that, but each of them was related to the Poodles I had at home.
The four adults were first to come flying down the front steps to say hello. All were black in color, and all were finished champions. They sported the easy-to-maintain kennel clip with their faces, feet, and base of their tails clipped short, and a trim blanket of curls covering the remainder of their bodies. The two bitches, Hope and Willow, led the way. The males, Zeke and Beau, brought up the rear.
Coral, the only puppy in the group, remained standing in the doorway at Aunt Peg's side. Coral was nine months old and just starting her career in the show ring. She already had two points toward her championship, and my teenage son, Davey, was going to be handling her in some summer shows.
Coral's dense, black coat was longer than that of the other Poodles. It was carefully shaped to leave a profusion of hair on the back of her neck and over her shoulders. The puppy's topknot hair was banded into ponytails on top of her head and her ear hair was wrapped in brightly colored plastic paper.
Until Coral won the coveted fifteen points needed to attain her championship, her coat — which had been growing from birth — would need to be cosseted and protected at all times. For that reason, she usually wasn't allowed to join in the older Poodles' rough- and-tumble play. Now, however, Aunt Peg released the big black puppy from her side and Coral came skipping down the steps joyously. When I knelt down, she threw herself into my arms.
"You're early." Aunt Peg followed her canine crew down the stairs. "Don't think I'm going to let you dive into the pupcakes before everyone else arrives."
"Me?" I managed an innocent look.
Okay, so maybe I'd skimped on dinner in anticipation of the goodies I was sure to find at Aunt Peg's gathering. Her sweet tooth was legendary. And over the years I'd spent in her company, I'd developed my own lust for sweets by osmosis. I knew there would be pastries from the St. Moritz Bakery waiting inside. Pupcakes — vanilla cupcakes whimsically frosted to resemble a puppy's face — were a special treat.
"Yes, you," Aunt Peg replied sternly. "I'm expecting a full house tonight. I would hate to run out of refreshments."
"A full house." I tried not to sound annoyed. "How did that happen?"
Aunt Peg snapped her fingers. The Poodles immediately stopped racing around the front yard. They ran up the steps and through the open door into the house. She and I followed.
"Oh, you know," Aunt Peg said blithely. "One thing led to another."
"You do realize this was supposed to be a small group, right? Just some friends getting together to talk about books."
"Yes, of course. But there's the problem. I have so many friends."
Aunt Peg ushered me in the direction of her living room. The two chintz-covered loveseats that had flanked the fireplace were now angled to face a grouping of assorted chairs gathered from the dining room and library. At a quick glance, I counted more than a dozen seats.
The refreshments were set out on a sideboard. There was a pot of tea, and several bottles of wine, along with appropriate china and stemware. A tray of pupcakes was sitting beside a large dish of chocolate and macaroon Sarah Bernhardts. The entire display looked heavenly.
"Like ... how many?" I asked.
I sidled over toward the buffet and reached for a Sarah Bernhardt. Aunt Peg slapped my hand away.
"Wait for the guests to arrive," she said.
"I'm a guest."
There was that.
I turned away and sat down on the edge of a loveseat. Hope walked over and placed her head in my lap. I ruffled my fingers through her topknot and ears. Hope was littermate to my beloved Faith. I was sure she could smell her sister's scent on my clothing.
"How many?" I repeated.
"They're a lively cross-section of exhibitors. You probably already know some of them. Or at least you've seen them at shows. I'm sure you'll like them once you've met them."
Note that once again she'd dodged my question.
"Do they read books?" I asked.
"I should hope so. I did tell them this was a book club."
I supposed that counted for something. "Do they have names?"
"Oh pish," said Aunt Peg. "Of course they have names. Felicity Barber, for one."
I frowned briefly. After a moment, a vague image of the woman's face swam into view. I was pretty sure she had a toy breed. We're dog people. We identify everyone by their breed affiliation.
"Japanese Chin?" I guessed.
"That's right." Aunt Peg looked pleased. Apparently I'd turned out to be a better student than expected.
"Marge Brennan," she said next.
"I know her. She has Bulldogs." Marge was a fellow Non-Sporting Group exhibitor. She was easy to picture. Short and squat, she also had the pendulous cheeks and perpetual scowl of her chosen breed. "Who else?"
I shook my head.
"Tall? Skinny? Greyhounds. You know."
"No, I don't."
And just like that, my approval rating dipped again.
Aunt Peg rushed through the rest. "Toby Cane. He has Welshies." Welsh Springer Spaniels for the uninitiated. "And Rush and Vic Landry breed Belgian Tervurens. There, you see? That's all."
"That's six new people," I pointed out unnecessarily.
Alice had arrived at our first book club meeting with a neighbor named Evan Major, who'd recently moved onto her block. She'd confided that she'd brought him along because she felt sorry for him. A small, unassuming man in his forties, Evan had been shy in our boisterous company and had mostly kept his thoughts to himself. He didn't volunteer any personal information, but he did describe himself as an avid reader.
At our second meeting, held at Alice's house, another neighbor had shown up unexpectedly. Bella Barrundy came through the door with a smile on her face and a pot full of homemade macaroni and cheese in her hands. She informed us that Evan had invited her to join the group, though he appeared surprised to hear that. But Bella had read the book we were discussing and she joined our conversation with enthusiasm. So we accepted her into the fold.
At the time I'd thought that seven people seemed like a fine size for the book club. It was large enough to offer room for differing opinions, yet small enough to keep things cozy and copacetic.
And now it seemed that our numbers had nearly doubled.
Thank you, Aunt Peg, I thought somewhat murderously.
"You're welcome," she replied.
Oh Lord, I hadn't said that out loud, had I?
The doorbell rang and Aunt Peg went to answer it. The Standard Poodles leapt up and ran after her, the five of them eddying around the closely grouped furniture like a fast-flowing canine stream. A moment later, a chorus of new voices filled the front hall.
Ready or not, I thought. Here we go.CHAPTER 2
"Where did all these people come from?" asked
Only minutes had passed, but the living room was already packed with a lively crowd. I'd given up my perch on the loveseat to claim a spot by the wall from which to observe the new arrivals. Fortunately the corner I'd staked out was next to the dish of Sarah Bernhardts. When Terry cut through the group and joined me there, I'd just stuffed a second one into my mouth.
Since I was briefly unable to speak, Terry took up the slack. "This crowd is unexpected, isn't it? I'm glad I dressed for the occasion." He peered around the room. "Is that Rush Landry? I wouldn't have pictured him as a novel reader. Automotive magazines, maybe. Or possibly porn ..."
I swallowed hastily and slapped him on the arm. "Stop that!"
"Stop what? Saying out loud what you know perfectly well you're thinking?"
"I am not," I replied. "And what is that you're wearing anyway?"
Terry was in his thirties but he could easily pass for a decade younger. For some reason, he'd decided to come to the meeting dressed in a velvet smoking jacket with a cream-colored cravat knotted around his neck. His blond hair was slicked back off his face and his nails were perfectly manicured. He looked like an extra in a British period film. All he needed to complete the picture was a pipe and a valet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bite Club"
Copyright © 2019 Laurien Berenson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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