With her former fiancé off finding himself, Melanie Travis figures the only ring she’ll be seeing in the near future is one where she’s showing her prized poodles. But love is still in the air for her brother Frank, who is about to tie the knot with his sweetheart, Bertie Kennedy. With scant knowledge of tulle, favors, or cocktail hors d’oeuvres, Melanie happily leaves the nuptial arrangements to Sara Bentley, a fellow dog handler moonlighting as a wedding coordinator. But when Sara suddenly vanishes, a panicked Bertie gives Melanie a choice: either pinch-hit for Sara—or find out where she is.
Opting for the latter, Melanie begins sniffing around into Sara's past—and unearths big trouble when Sara’s cottage burns to the ground and a woman’s body is found in the rubble. There are plenty of people with grudges against Sara—from a disgruntled dog groomer to a competitor whose dog was poisoned a decade ago to an embittered ex-boyfriend. Even Sara’s own family seems oddly unconcerned about her disappearance…but are the blue-blooded Bentleys cold-blooded enough to kill one of their own?
“Totally satisfying.”—I Love A Mystery
“Beware! Pick up Once Bitten and it will sink its fangs into your imagination. You’ll read straight through to the end.”—Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
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A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2001 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
"We're looking for something small," Bertie said. "Cozy. Intimate."
Bertie Kennedy was Frank's fiancée, a professional handler on the Northeast dog show circuit. When I'd introduced the two of them fifteen months earlier, I never dreamed things would come to this.
"Of course it's going to be small," Sara Bentley replied. "You're only giving me six weeks. With that kind of lead time, you'll be lucky if we pull this off at all."
"You'll manage." With enviable calm, Bertie eyed the woman she'd chosen to plan her upcoming nuptials. "You always do."
"No, I don't." Sara's thick, dark curls bounced from side to side as she shook her head. "That's the whole point."
What whole point? I wondered. What did Sara and Bertie know that I didn't?
I sneaked a glance at the legal pad Sara had balanced across her knees. Her Mont Blanc pen was poised to fly across the page, but though we'd been talking for the past fifteen minutes, she had yet to make a single note.
"Don't be silly," said Bertie. "You've had some bad luck, that's all. And maybe some bad timing. This job is going to be perfect for you."
Sara relaxed her shoulders slightly. When she smiled, her whole face lit up. I guessed her to be about the same age as Bertie and me: late twenties, early thirties, but happy—she looked as innocent as a child. "Well, I do have impeccable taste."
"Precisely. And great organizational skills. Not to mention entertaining contacts up the wazoo."
"I do know how to throw a party," Sara admitted.
"And how to close a bar," Bertie mentioned. Clearly there was history between these two women that I was missing out on.
Sara laughed, not offended in the least. She brushed her unruly hair out of her eyes and got down to business.
I sat and watched as the two of them ran through the basics of what Bertie wanted—yellow everything, no quiche, and a really kick-ass band—and wondered what I was doing there. Or, more precisely, since the meeting was taking place at my house, what were they doing here?
When Bertie had called the night before and asked me to sit in on a meeting with her wedding planner, I'd been happy to oblige. I liked Bertie a lot, and I thought she'd make a superb addition to the family. Frank had not only chosen well, he'd also, to my way of looking at things, been incredibly lucky to find someone as great as Bertie who was willing to take him on.
Then again, I'm no expert when it comes to charting the course of true love. Sam's unexpected flight had certainly proven that.
I also know next to nothing about planning a wedding or any other sort of large social function, and so far I hadn't proven any help at all.
"What do you think?" Bertie asked, poking me in the knee hard. "A buffet is a good idea, right? No way people want to have to sit down and eat. Besides, we're going to keep this small and casual. Everyone can help themselves when they feel like it."
"Sure—" A squeal from the next room, followed by the sound of several high-pitched barks, halted me mid-thought. "Davey?"
Sara looked up at the same time, recognizing her own dog's voice as easily as I'd have recognized Faith's. "Titus?"
"Yes?" The single syllable floated in from the kitchen. It was injected with all the innocence a seven-year-old boy could muster.
"Is everything all right in there?"
Before he could answer, Faith appeared in the living room doorway. If she'd been human, she would have been shaking her head. As it was, the urge to tattle could easily be read in her expression. Whatever game Davey had gotten the visiting Sheltie to take part in, Faith didn't approve.
Standards are the largest of the three varieties of Poodles. As Faith approached the armchair where I sat, she and I were almost eye to eye. And of course, her show coat made her look even bigger.
The front half of her body was encased in a long, thick mane of black hair, which was mostly wrapped and banded now to keep it out of her way. In the show ring, that hair would be brushed, shaped, and sprayed into an outline uniquely recognizable as belonging to the Poodle breed.
Faith walked across the room, reached up, and placed both her front paws across my lap. Her body language was unmistakable. She figured Davey and Titus were about to get into trouble, and she intended to be well out of the way when it happened.
"What are you guys doing?" I called.
"Nothing," Davey answered.
As if there's a mother in the world who would believe that.
My son appeared at the edge of the archway between the hall and living room. Titus, Sara's Shetland Sheepdog, seemed to be standing behind him, though the wall was blocking my view. Davey had both hands behind his back and looked as though he was bracing against something. I thought I heard a low growl.
"Titus!" Sara said sharply.
Immediately the dog leapt around Davey and trotted into the room. The Sheltie was a beautiful golden sable color. His ears were up and alert and there was a smile on his foxy face. A long, thickly furnished tail wagged up and over his back as he danced to Sara's side. Clearly he was still ready to play.
"Davey, what do you have in your hands?"
Reluctantly, my son pulled out the Frisbee he had hidden behind his back. With a yip, Titus flew across the room and grabbed the edge of the plastic disk in his teeth. Shaking his head, he tried to pry the toy free.
"Sorry." Sara leapt up and pad and pen scattered. "Titus knows how to behave better than that. It's just that Frisbees are his favorite thing."
"Davey knows better, too," I muttered.
That knowledge didn't seem to have stopped my son from throwing the Frisbee in the house. I could hardly blame the dog, who, after all, had been no more than a willing co-conspirator.
In the few minutes it took us to get everyone sorted out, Sara decided that she had enough information to get started making calls, finding out about availability, and chasing down quotes. She gathered up her things. Bertie and I both saw her to the door.
Sara's blue Mercedes Benz sedan was parked at the end of my driveway. Titus ran on ahead, jumping up to bat his white paws eagerly against the side door. If Sara was concerned that his nails might scratch the pristine metallic finish, she didn't show it.
Instead, she took her time, fishing her keys out of her purse and pausing to kiss Bertie good-bye on both cheeks in the European fashion. Then, to my surprise, I received the same treatment, even though we'd only met an hour earlier.
Bertie glanced at me and rolled her eyes as Sara walked out and got in her car. "Old friend," she said as I closed the door.
"At times. Probably more when she needed me than when I needed her."
Bertie reached for the coat rack behind the door, where she'd hung her leather jacket when she came in. I'd already sent Davey upstairs to get ready for bed. He had school the next day and so did I, but I had no intention of letting Bertie leave until I heard more.
I took the jacket out of her hands and hung it back up. "It sounds like there's a story there."
"Believe me, with Sara there's always a story. Her life is one big story."
I headed toward the kitchen and Bertie followed. "She seemed nice enough to me."
"Who said she wasn't nice? Not me. Life around Sara can be a hell of a good time. Fun, fun, fun, as they say." She stopped and frowned. "Who said that anyway, the Beach Boys?"
"I think so. Though to tell you the truth, I'm not up on surfer music." We pulled out chairs at the kitchen table and sat down. My house has a perfectly nice living room, but except when I'm entertaining people I don't know well, I seem to spend my life in the kitchen. "How long have you known Sara?"
Bertie thought back. "Probably seven or eight years. When I was trying to get started as a handler, she was at all the shows. Her mother breeds Shelties. Scotchglen Shetland Sheepdogs. Maybe you've heard of them?"
I shook my head. I've been going to shows for the past two years, which, in most dog people's eyes, makes me a newcomer to the sport. I'm still trying to get the exhibitors in the Non-Sporting group straight. The Herding group, where Shelties were classified, was currently beyond my sphere of knowledge.
"Anyway, Sara and I hit it off and we started hanging out together."
"Was she a wedding planner then?"
"No." Bertie grinned. "I'm not even sure she's a wedding planner now."
I heard footsteps on the stairs, and a moment later, Faith entered the kitchen. She was ready to go outside while I went up and tucked Davey into bed. By the time I returned, she'd be waiting for me on the back steps. When I let her in, the big Poodle would dash upstairs and settle in for the night at the foot of Davey's bed.
Dogs are creatures of habit. So are mothers, when they get the chance. I loved our cozy domestic ritual; loved the thought of my son and our dog cuddling, keeping each other safe and warm all night long.
Bertie saw to Faith while I went up and took care of Davey. Minutes later we resumed our conversation as though it had never been interrupted.
"The thing about Sara," Bertie said, "is that she's still trying to find her niche. When I met her, she was going to shows because that's what her mother did. And, I guess, because she genuinely enjoys the dogs. But then she saw what I was doing and decided it might be a good way to make a living."
"Sara was a handler?"
"More or less. She was never very successful at it. You know what handling's like. It's a twenty-four hour a day job. And Sara wasn't willing to put in the time. Let's just say she was much better at schmoozing the judges than she was at cleaning the crates."
I thought about the shiny Mercedes Sara had parked in my driveway. I'd found my niche, to use Bertie's terminology, and I considered myself lucky to have a Volvo. Who knew searching could be so lucrative?
"Then what did she do?"
"Dog show photographer. For a while, Sara figured that was the perfect choice. She likes taking pictures, plus she got to go to all the shows and visit with her friends."
"For a while?"
"Well, she wasn't really getting hired all that much. The big shows, the established ones, have been using the same guys for years. What Sara should have done was try to drum up business at specialties, or the new start-up dog clubs. But that wasn't where she wanted to be."
"Exit one photographer," I said.
"She still takes a good picture," Bertie admitted. "I used her for some pub shots on a Lhasa I was showing last year and they turned out great. And that stint kind of led to her next career."
I leaned back in my chair, enjoying the possibilities. I'd become a teacher and a mother young enough to rule out any such frivolity when it came to making choices. Listening to Sara's history gave me a vicarious thrill. I wondered how long it would be before we worked our way around to the wedding-planner gig.
"Dog sitter/pet groomer," said Bertie. "Freelance, of course. Because, as Sara has pointed out many times, she could never work for anyone but herself."
"And that didn't work out either?"
"No, it has. For the most part, anyway. At least she's still doing it. I don't think she has a lot of clients, but there seem to be enough to make her think she's in business."
"Enough to buy her a Mercedes?"
"Oh, that." Bertie waved a hand. "Mummy's money paid for that. Good God, you didn't think Sara was actually trying to support herself with all those jobs, did you?"
"Well ... yes."
"No, no, no.... Sara's mother comes from old money." Bertie pursed her lips and made a face, as if to illustrate Sara's patrician forebears. "Delilah got into showing dogs as a child in the old days, when kennel maids did all the actual work, and ladies, if they showed their own dogs at all, wore white gloves to do so. She was Delilah Cooper-Smith then, Delilah Waring now. Sara's father was the first husband."
"Deceased." Bertie smiled, then added mysteriously. "Some say Delilah was to blame."
"Don't tell me he was murdered."
"No." Bertie's green eyes sparkled with "gotcha!" glee. "Heart attack. But Delilah isn't the easiest woman to live with."
I grinned along with her. If your hobby is solving murders, I've found it helps to have a sense of humor.
"So after all these other occupations, Sara became a wedding planner exactly when?"
"Um ..." Bertie's gaze shifted from mine. "Yesterday."
"Good golly, Miss Molly."
Since Davey got old enough to mimic everything I say, I've tried hard to give up swearing. Some days that vow is harder to keep than others.
"But she'll do a good job, I'm sure of it. Sara needs the business, and if her friends don't support her, who will? Besides, how many established wedding planners do you think I could find to take me on with six weeks' notice?"
There was that.
"Okay," I said. "But why did you bring her here? What do I have to do with any of this?"
Bertie pushed back her chair and rose. "I thought you'd have figured that out by now."
She walked out of the kitchen, heading for the front door. Unfortunately, I hadn't figured anything out. I jumped up and followed.
"I need your help."
"No, not with Sara. She's all set. That's what I wanted you to see. It's your Aunt Peg I'm worried about. You know how she tends to ..."
"Meddle?" I supplied. "Interfere? Try to run peoples' lives?"
"Precisely. I want you to get her to let me do this my way."
"I want you to keep her under control."
Believe me, I've tried.
But hey, I thought, welcome to the family.
That weekend, I had Faith entered in back-to-back dog shows in Hartford. Having lost a large section of neck hair in the spring, the Poodle had been out of the show ring for most of the year. By October, however, her mane had finally recovered enough to suit Aunt Peg's exacting standards.
I'd started entering her in the shows again, and Faith had quickly picked up the remaining single point she needed. At the moment, she was in the thoroughly unenviable position known as "stuck for a major."
In order to complete its championship, a dog must accumulate fifteen points in competition within its own breed and sex. Unfinished dogs do not have to compete against already finished champions (as they do in England), and the number of points awarded is based on the number of dogs or bitches beaten. The most a dog can win on a single day is five; the fewest, with competition, one. Included in that fifteen must be two "major" wins—shows where the dog has won at least three points, meaning that he has beaten a considerable amount of competition.
The theory behind the rule is sound. It prevents a so-so dog from gaining its championship by piling up singles by winning over sparse or inferior competitors. In practice, however, it often leads to a situation where a good dog, through no fault of its own, spends weeks or even months trying to secure that last, coveted, major win.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that points are based not on the size of the pre-entry, but on the number of dogs or bitches that actually show up to be judged. It is very possible to get back a judging schedule that lists a major entry, only to arrive on the day and find that half the competition has stayed home. Other factors, including time of year, availability of good judges, and whether or not area breeders have puppies that need to gain experience in the ring, also combine to play a role.
Faith had accumulated eleven points, including one major, before she lost her coat in the spring. Her first weekend back, she'd won another single. But though I'd entered her every weekend since, the shows had only drawn enough Standard Poodles for one or two point competition. This was the first time the possibility of a major had been offered.
I was tired of waiting, and I was tired of throwing away money on useless entry fees. I planned to go to both shows, and I was hoping like mad to win.
Aunt Peg, however, had had major reservations.
"Derek Hunnicutt?" she'd said in dismay when she heard that I'd sent in entries. "You entered that bitch under Derek Hunnicutt? Whatever for?"
"Because I think he'll draw a major."
"Of course he will. He'll draw every professional Poodle handler in the Northeast. They all love him, and with good reason. They're the only ones he ever puts up."
"At least I'll have a shot. It's better than sitting home because there's no major to even try for."
"That's what you think now. If you think waiting for the right judge and the right major is frustrating, just see how you feel after having done all the work of getting her ready and taking her in the ring and then watching it come to nothing."
"But Faith's a very pretty bitch—"
Excerpted from Once Bitten by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2001 by Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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