The apparent heart attack that killed kennel owner Max Turnbull has left seven pups in mourning, and his wife Peg suspecting foul play. But the only evidence is their missing prize pooch—a pedigreed poodle named Beau.
Enter Melanie Travis. With her young son happily ensconced in day camp, the thirty-something teacher and single mother is talked into investigating her uncle’s death—unofficially, of course. Posing as a poodle breeder in search of the perfect stud, Melanie hounds Connecticut’s elite canine competitions, and finds an ally in fellow breeder Sam Driver. But her affection cools when she's put on the scent of Sam’s questionable past…and hot on the trail of a poodle-hating neighbor and one elusive murderer who isn't ready to come to heel. For, as Melanie soon discovers, in a championship dog-eat-dog world, the instinct for survival, and winning, can prove fatal.
“Naturally flowing prose, extended suspense, and an infectiously upbeat single mother as protagonist make this a special treat.”—Library Journal
“A bonanza for ardent dog fanciers and for others, a likable heroine in a smoothly paced romantic mystery.”—Publishers Weekly
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A Pedigree to Die for
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1995 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
There's a lot to be said for dying in the midst of something you love. But fond as Uncle Max was of his Poodles, I doubt that he'd ever envisioned himself being found dead on the cold, hard kennel floor, his curled fingers grasping at the open door of an empty pen.
For their part, the Poodles didn't seem to think much of the idea either. All seven of the big black dogs were scratching at their doors and whining when Aunt Peg came out the next morning looking for Max, who was inexplicably missing from her bed when she woke up. The moment she saw him, she knew what had happened. The Turnbull men weren't known for their strong hearts; the doctor had warned Max more than once to slow down. But in the end, all the things they'd done together — giving up smoking, taking up walking, watching their cholesterol — hadn't made the slightest bit of difference.
Not one to panic when composure served better, Aunt Peg had closed her husband's eyes, then covered him with a blanket before picking up the phone and calling for an ambulance.
I learned all this from my brother Frank, whose name she'd supplied when asked by the police if there was someone they could call. One look at Aunt Peg and they must have realized that the sedatives the paramedics had so thoughtfully left behind were going to go to waste. That's when they started making comforting noises about next of kin.
We've never been the type of family to advertise our emotions. Aunt Peg would no sooner keen and wail than join the chorus line of the Rockettes. Nevertheless Frank had arrived prepared to offer whatever support was needed. That none was soon became apparent when Aunt Peg declared that his hovering was making her nervous and sent him home.
Now, three days later, Frank was kneeling beside me in the front pew of Saint Mary's Church in Greenwich. He looked every bit as uncomfortable as I felt when the rest of the funeral party trooped up to the altar to receive communion. It was painfully obvious that we were the only two to remain behind.
Thanks to my Aunt Rose, Max's sister and a member of the order of the Sisters of Divine Mercy, the church was full. As the priest began dispensing hosts from the golden chalice, I pushed aside the missals that littered the pew, sat back, and resigned myself to a long wait. Two by two, the sisters glided by, their rubber-soled shoes noiseless on the church floor. Many, I noted absently, were of the old school, which meant that they still wore the dark habits and crisp white wimples I remembered so vividly from my youth.
The soft rustle of cloth, the muted clacking of polished rosary beads that swung from the sisters' waists, both were sounds from the past. For a moment, I found myself transported back to the narrow halls of the convent school where I'd been raised. It wasn't a trip I enjoyed. Some Catholics refer to their faith as something that has lapsed. I tend to think of mine as expired.
Until that afternoon, it had been years since I'd been inside a church. Five years, to be exact, since an icy patch of road had sent my parents' car careening down a steep embankment and into a river, leaving me — newly married and newly pregnant — also newly orphaned. Bob, my husband then, ex now, maintained at the time that anyone who had reached the age of twenty-five was simply too old to qualify for orphan status.
"I know what I feel!" I wanted to shout at him. In later years, I wouldn't have been so reticent. Later we shouted about a lot of things.
Still, I had Bob to thank for my son, and in my mind, that more than evened the score. Davey was home now with a sitter, no doubt spurning the glorious May weather to watch Oprah Winfrey on TV. There'd be plenty of time later for him to learn about funerals — and about people who die long before you're ready to say goodbye.
A throat cleared scratchily, and I looked up to find Aunt Peg standing above me. One of the first to go to the altar, she was now ready to return to the pew. Quickly I stood up to let her by.
Behind her came Aunt Rose, Sister Anne Marie to the other nuns. Her head was bowed, her eyes half-closed. Her fingers were braced together at the tips, forming a slim arrow that pointed upward toward the heavens. In contrast to Aunt Peg's grim-lipped frown, her expression had a soft, unmolded quality. She was talking to her God, I realized. Uncomfortable, I looked away.
The line at the communion rail dwindled, then finally ended. The sisters glided back to their pews. At the altar, the priest mumbled the remaining words of the mass before offering a blessing to the assemblage.
I was turning to retrieve my purse from the bench when the sisters began to sing. Their voices rose, filling the large church with the harmonious cadence of a well-rehearsed choir. I straightened, then paused to listen. The hymn was Latin, its words vaguely familiar. But it was the music itself that reached out to me; the voices joined as one sent a tingle racing up the length of my spine. The sound was pure and sweet and uplifting. For a moment, I could almost believe that the sisters were, as I'd been taught years before, in the business of sending souls to heaven.
I waited until the song ended before leaving the pew. Uncle Max, who'd always had a dramatic flair, would have loved the pageantry of it all. As a child, in the years before the family drifted apart, I'd found him fascinating. Everything about Uncle Max was just slightly outsize; he had no use for the ordinary, and little tolerance for anyone who did. He enjoyed beauty and style, and surrounded himself with plenty, like the kennel full of Standard Poodles that he bred and exhibited. The funeral mass, with all its pomp and ceremony, would have suited him just fine.
I rode to the cemetery in the first limousine with Frank and Aunt Peg. Aunt Rose was curiously absent. Perhaps she felt the chauffeur-driven Lincoln was too ostentatious for her station in the world. Or perhaps the impression I'd gotten over the years that she and Aunt Peg didn't get along was true.
Aunt Peg was silent during the drive, and Frank and I followed suit. Somehow I didn't feel I had the right to intrude. The dark brim of a fedora was pulled low over her eyes; the set of her shoulders was stiff. Whatever emotions she was feeling, she kept them to herself.
The graveside ceremony was brief. In keeping with family tradition, there were no histrionics, only a quiet prayer beside the coffin. As we turned to leave, I heard a quiet sigh.
"Goodbye, Max," Aunt Peg whispered. Her lower lip trembled briefly, then stilled.
Walking back toward the line of parked cars, I reached out impulsively and took her hand in mine. "If there's anything at all I can do ..."
Little did I know.CHAPTER 2
The phone call came three days later.
Aunt Peg caught me at a bad moment, but then there are days when my life seems full of them. My duties as a special ed. teacher for the Stamford school system had just ended for the year, but the jubilation I'd expected to feel had been short-lived. That morning, I'd been notified that the summer job I'd counted on — working as a counselor at a camp for handicapped children — had fallen through due to lack of funding.
Then the day's mail had arrived, containing a picture postcard from Bradley, the man I'd been seeing sporadically over the past year. Mailed from Las Vegas, it featured a picture of the Silver Bells Wedding Chapel on the front and a scribbled note on the back, confessing that he'd made use of the chapel the day before with a six-foot chorus girl from Circus, Circus.
To top it off, when I'd tried to drive to the supermarket so that I could drown my sorrows in Heavenly Hash ice cream, I'd discovered that my ancient Volvo was sitting in front of the house with a flat tire. By the time the phone rang, I was in no mood for small talk.
"I'll get it!" yelled four-year-old Davey. He raced into the kitchen, hands outstretched, fingers bright with paint. "Mine! Mine!"
"Oh no you don't." With agility born of experience, I dodged around the counter and snatched up the receiver before he could reach it.
"I need help," Aunt Peg announced without preamble.
"Of course, anything."
"Is Frank there?"
The ripple of resentment was small, but definitely there. Still, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Aunt Peg was just old-fashioned enough to believe that men were better at getting things done than women; which only went to prove how little she knew about her nephew.
"No, he isn't, Aunt Peg. I haven't seen him since the funeral. Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm not all right. I just told you I needed help. Do those sound like the words of someone who's all right?"
I sighed and took a tighter grip on the receiver. Aunt Peg has always had a way of keeping me just slightly off balance. She'd been married to my father's brother for thirty years, but we'd never really been friends. Now, hearing her distress, I nudged aside the chorus girl from Circus, Circus, who was still dancing at the edge of my thoughts. "Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
"One of my dogs is missing."
It took a moment for that to register, longer still for my mind to form an appropriate response.
Ever impatient, Aunt Peg simply plunged on without me. "He's been gone since the night Max died, and I think the two things are related."
Abruptly, the chorus girl vanished without a trace. "Aunt Peg, what are you trying to say?"
"I'm not trying to say anything. Indeed, I thought I was expressing myself rather well."
"I thought Uncle Max had a heart attack."
"That's certainly what it seemed. But once I realized Beau was gone, I began to wonder. There must have been someone else in the kennel with him. Perhaps there was a scuffle over the dog."
It sounded pretty far-fetched to me. But then, I work with seven-year-olds; I'm used to humoring people. "Have you spoken to the police?"
"The police," Aunt Peg sniffed, as though discussing a lower, and obviously less intelligent form of life, "weren't impressed by what I had to say. I was told that the fact that an older man with a weak heart had suffered a heart attack did not warrant any investigation on their part. As to the missing dog, the lieutenant had the nerve to suggest that I call the dog warden."
That didn't sound like such a bad idea to me. I wrung out a wet cloth in the sink and began to wipe Davey's hands. "Where does Frank fit in?"
"I want to find out what really happened that night," Aunt Peg said firmly. "And I want my dog back. If the police aren't interested in doing the job, then I'll simply have to see to it myself. I was thinking Frank might help."
"I want to talk to Aunt Peg!" Davey cried suddenly. He jumped up and tried to grab the receiver from my hand.
Turning, I nudged him down and juggled the receiver to my other ear. "Not now. Mommy's busy. Why don't you go play outside?"
"Want to talk," Davey insisted, stamping his foot.
"Melanie, are you there?"
"Yes, Aunt Peg —"
"Can you find Frank for me?"
"Well ..." I could already imagine what my brother's response was going to be. Poodles, missing or otherwise, had never ranked very high on his list of priorities, and flinty, indomitable Aunt Peg suited nobody's idea of a kindly old lady in need. "You know Frank, he could be anywhere."
The silence between us lengthened. When it had stretched to a full minute, I knew I'd been outwaited. "I do know some of his friends. I guess I could do some calling around."
"Good. Track him down and feed him a good meal. I'll join you after dinner when you've got him softened up a bit. What time should I come?"
Commitment settled around my neck like a noose. "Nine o'clock for coffee and dessert?" I suggested weakly.
"Fine, I'll see you then."
No sooner had I replaced the receiver than Davey began to wail. "I didn't get to talk. I wanted to talk to Aunt Peg!"
"Aunt Peg didn't have time to talk." Without thinking, I wiped away his tears with the same cloth that had cleaned his hands, leaving a long streak of red paint down each cheek. Davey giggled delightedly.
"Come on, sport, let's go wash you off. Then we've got a tire to change."
The house Davey and I live in is small — a square little box on a square plot of land that isn't a whole lot bigger. The realtor who sold it to Bob and me called it a cape, which brought to mind visions of lonely dunes and sandy, windswept beaches. Although the town of Stamford is on the Connecticut shore, there isn't a beach within miles of here. And as for lonely dunes, you can forget those, too. The developer who built Flower Estates packed the houses in like he was paying for land by the foot.
Still, it's a nice neighborhood for Davey to grow up in, and the mortgage has a fixed rate that I tell myself I can afford. As to the house being small, most of the time it doesn't matter. Davey and I don't take up much room. Frank and Aunt Peg, however, are a different matter entirely.
"I still don't see why I had to get mixed up in this," Frank complained later that night. He was sitting at the dining-room table, stirring his coffee slowly while I cleared away the last of the dinner dishes. "It would be one thing if she was upset about Uncle Max, but a dog?"
"It's both things together," I told him, not for the first time. "Aunt Peg seems to think the two are related — that the dog was stolen the night Uncle Max died. She needs your help, Frank. The least you can do is listen to what she has to say."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Not that I could tell, so make the best of it."
A moment later a sharp rap on the front door signaled Aunt Peg's arrival. "Brace yourself," I said, as I rose to let her in. "Here we go."
Aunt Peg swept into the front hall like a gale wind and surveyed her surroundings with a look that went straight down her nose. As she stood head and shoulders above me, I had never quite decided whether this mode of assessment was born of necessity or preference. Her hair, now more gray than the rich dark red I remembered from my youth, was combed back into a bun that accentuated her high cheekbones and wide forehead. She carried herself with the assurance of someone who is used to being in charge and immediately took over the house as though it were her own.
"Hello, Melanie dear." She pecked my cheek quickly. "Is Davey still up? Can I say hello?"
I shook my head. "He's been in bed for hours. If I get him up now, he'll never go back."
Aunt Peg shrugged and handed me her sweater to be dealt with. "Next time then. Frank's in the dining room? Don't worry, I'll find my way." She was gone before I even had a chance to reply.
As a child, I'd always been in awe of my dashing aunt and uncle. Their lives seemed glamorous and vaguely mysterious, filled with travel and adventure. Aunt Peg had presence; enough, I'd always thought, to lead armies into battle. I, on the other hand, was the type who was apt to get lost in a crowd of two. Bearing, she told me, had everything to do with it. I myself thought it was height. But beside my aunt's vivid coloring, my own brown hair and hazel eyes had seemed plain and unremarkable. Sometimes the sheer force of her personality left me feeling as though I'd disappeared all together. Looking after her now, I couldn't see that much had changed.
When I joined them in the dining room, Frank was pouring the coffee while Aunt Peg got straight to business. She began with her realization — hours after she'd discovered Uncle Max — that Beau, their valuable stud dog, was missing.
"I don't see why you're assuming the dog was stolen," Frank broke in. "With all the confusion that morning, he probably just wandered away. Dogs do like to roam, you know."
The glare Aunt Peg sent his way held all the warmth of granite in winter. "My dear boy, Poodles do not roam, and Beau did not wander away."
I caught Frank's eye and shrugged. He grinned in return, a toothless grimace that questioned the sanity of older relations.
Aunt Peg frowned sternly. "Unfortunately, the authorities were no more excited about Beau's disappearance than you two seem to be. Even the FBI said that they couldn't step in until there was some evidence that the dog had been transported across state lines."
I choked on a sip of coffee. "The FBI? Aunt Peg, you didn't really call them, did you?"
"Of course. I've called everybody. And now it appears that I am going to get no more understanding from my own relatives than I did from total strangers."
The line was intended to produce guilt, and it fulfilled its function admirably. At least I had the good grace to blush. Frank merely settled back in his chair, resigned to hearing her out.
Excerpted from A Pedigree to Die for by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 1995 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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