There’s nothing lovelier than Christmas in Connecticut, but Melanie Travis can scarcely find a moment to enjoy the festivities. With her youngest son approaching toddlerhood, she’s decided to return to her old job at Howard Academy, a posh private school attended by the children of Greenwich’s well-heeled gentry. Balancing work, motherhood, and the hectic dog show circuit takes some fancy footwork, especially when the headmaster taps her to be the chairman of the school’s Christmas Bazaar.
The Christmas Bazaar is Howard Academy’s biggest and most important fundraiser, so Melanie feels the pressure to make it a huge success. But everything goes awry when a prize show dog goes missing and Santa turns up dead. The dog’s owner is one of the school’s most perfectly pedigreed alums, and she enlists Melanie to help find the purloined pooch. But just as Melanie starts pawing at the truth, she digs up a sleighful of sinister secrets that leaves everyone feeling less than merry…
“Cozy mystery fans and dog lovers will lap this one up.”—Library Journal
“Laurien Berenson is a rare breed of writer.”—The Plain Dealer
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The Bark Before Christmas
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
"Here," said Bertie, handing me a slicker brush. "Don't just stand there. Make yourself useful."
The directive involved a Poodle. Nothing new about that in my life.
This Poodle was a cream-colored Miniature puppy, sitting on a nearby grooming table. The puppy looked as though she'd recently been bathed and blown dry. Now she needed the dense hair on her legs raked with a slicker so that Bertie could scissor her trim. When I glanced her way, the Mini gazed at me with trusting brown eyes.
I can talk and brush a Poodle at the same time. I've been doing it for years. Sad to say, I could probably do it with my eyes closed. And since I'd shown up at my sister-in-law's house unannounced, interrupting her preparations for the upcoming weekend's dog shows, I supposed I deserved to be put to work.
Make yourself useful. It's my family's rallying cry. We have my Aunt Peg to blame for that.
Dog show aficionados know Peg as Margaret Turnbull, breeder and exhibitor of some of the best Standard Poodles in the country over the past four decades. In recent years Aunt Peg has shifted her focus; now she's a much-in-demand Toy and Non-Sporting Group judge. But one thing hasn't changed a bit. Aunt Peg still has impossibly high standards and she blithely expects everyone in the vicinity — especially her relatives — to live up to them.
I've long since accepted the fact that Aunt Peg is always going to find my efforts wanting. But Bertie, bless her heart, she keeps trying. Maybe that's because she's a relative newcomer to the family. Married to my younger brother, Frank, Bertie is also a successful professional handler. She has a thriving business and a competitive string of dogs, several of which were currently in the process of being prepped for the weekend shows.
It was Friday, so I'd known that Bertie would be busy. Still, that hadn't stopped me from dropping by without warning. I needed someone to talk to. Someone with an impartial opinion who would either take my side and commiserate or else do exactly the opposite — tell me to grow up, stop complaining, and get to work.
Either way, I knew I could count on Bertie to talk me down off the ledge. She always had before.
So there I was, standing in Bertie's finished basement — which doubled as her kennel and grooming room — on that cold December morning. A French Bulldog was air drying in a crate with a towel draped over its back. Two Schipperkes, a Briard, and a pair of Toy Poodles were observing the activity from inside the long runs that lined the room's walls. Bertie had a silver Bearded Collie out on a second grooming table. It looked as though she'd been getting ready to grind the dog's nails when I arrived.
It was no wonder that I'd barely gotten my coat off before Bertie was already putting me to work. Tit for tat, Aunt Peg would have said.
I took the red slicker brush from Bertie's outstretched hand and raised the Mini puppy into a standing position on her tabletop. Lifting a hind foot, I began to brush upward through the plush leg hair with a sharp, practiced, flick of my wrist. Bertie turned on the Dremel tool and quickly shortened and shaped the eight nails on the Beardie's front feet.
Then she put down the grinder and said, "Well? You drove all the way over here, you might as well spit it out. What's the matter now?"
I didn't stop brushing, but I did angle my body in Bertie's direction. "Do you want the long version or the short version?"
She let her gaze drift around the room of half-groomed dogs. "It's not like I don't have time to listen. Tell me everything."
"You know I went back to work part-time, right?"
"Sure. You got your old job back at Howard Academy. Special needs tutor just like before."
By before, Bertie meant prebaby. My younger son, Kevin, had been born two and a half years earlier, and the single semester I'd taken for maternity leave had stretched to several by mutual consent. The school had been happy with the teacher they'd hired as my replacement and I'd been delighted to be a stay-at-home mom. It was a luxury I hadn't been able to afford when my older son, Davey, was born.
But over the summer my replacement had left and at the start of the current school year, I'd found myself teaching once more. I loved my job; I always had. The kids I worked with were wonderful and it was enormously satisfying to know that I could make a difference in their lives.
For three happy months, I'd been juggling part-time work at Howard Academy with my family life at home. In fact, the transition had gone so smoothly that I'd agreed to step up to a full-time position when the new semester began in January.
Bertie reached around for a back paw. The Beardie lifted its leg obligingly. "So what's the problem?"
"The Howard Academy Christmas Bazaar." I snorted with annoyance. "That's what."
"If you want me to bitch and moan convincingly on your behalf," Bertie said, "I'm going to need more information than that."
"How much do you know about Howard Academy?"
"Pretty much just the basics." She paused, then added, "Considering that my child goes to public school." Bertie and Frank's four-year-old daughter, Maggie, was in her first year of preschool and enjoying every minute of it. "Exclusive private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. The kids that go there are all like Richie Rich, trust-fund babies getting started on the educational path that will take them straight to the Ivy League. Am I close?"
"Yes, and no," I told her. "That may be the school's history and its reputation but it's no longer entirely correct. Actually, Mr. Hanover would be very disappointed to hear his beloved institution characterized in that way."
"He's the Big Cheese, right?"
"He is indeed. Not that anyone would ever dare call him that. Our headmaster is quite dignified, and very much aware of the significance of his position."
"In other words," said Bertie, "a prig."
I wished I could tell her she was wrong, but Russell Hanover II didn't just govern Howard Academy, he also shared the school's conservative ideology and its firm belief in its own importance. Fortunately, however, that was only one side of my boss. He was also a man who worked hard, played fair, and stood up for his teachers when they needed his support. All of which made me feel compelled to defend him.
"He may be a bit of a prig," I said. "But it's not on purpose."
Bertie shot me a look. "Is there any other way?"
I thought about my answer as I moved around the grooming table to work on the puppy's off-side legs. "Mr. Hanover honestly wants what's best for his school and for his students," I said after a minute. "He's aware that both he and Howard Academy are in a position to influence the next generation of this country's political and financial leaders. And he doesn't take that responsibility lightly."
"Oh my God." Bertie swept the Beardie off his table and led him across the room to an empty run. "I can't believe you just said that. This Hanover guy must be turning you into a prig, too."
Bertie cocked a brow. "Are you sure?"
"Be quiet," I said with a laugh. "And listen to what I'm trying to tell you. At one time, what you said about HA's student body would have been true. But things have changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Now the byword in education is diversity, and that includes extending a helping hand to those less fortunate. In the current school year, nearly one third of Howard Academy's students receive either full scholarships or financial aid."
"So what? That place has the money."
"That's just it," I told her. "It doesn't. The endowment funded by the Howard family a hundred years ago when they donated their property and founded the school is pretty much gone. So every dollar that's given away in scholarships has to be raised, primarily through alumni donations and school benefits."
Bertie fastened the latch on the Beardie's pen, then straightened and stared at me across the room. "I thought we were going to be talking about you. Why is any of this your problem?"
"Normally it wouldn't be."
I sighed. Loudly. And mostly for effect. The Mini puppy who, like all Poodles, was attuned to the people around her, tipped her head to one side and cocked an ear in my direction.
"Let me guess," said Bertie. "We've finally worked our way back around to the Christmas bazaar."
"Bingo. It's one of the biggest fund-raisers of the whole year. Mr. Hanover called me into his office earlier today. Apparently you're looking at its new chairman. As of a few hours ago, I'm in charge of the whole shebang."
"That sounds like a big job."
"It is!" I wailed. "It's huge."
"And when does this happy event take place?"
"Next weekend. Saturday."
Her eyes widened. "Eight days from now? You must be kidding. How are you ever going to pull the whole thing together by then?"
"Well, there's good news and bad news about that."
"Shoot," said Bertie.
"The good part is, most of the advance planning has already been done. The committees were formed six weeks ago and everyone is already working on their assignments. The whole school has been buzzing about the event for the last month."
"Okay." She nodded. "So what's the bad news?"
"The woman in the middle of all that activity, a parent volunteer who was the former chairman, eloped to Cabo San Lucas yesterday morning. Apparently she tendered her resignation as chairman of the bazaar by e-mail. Mr. Hanover was not amused."
Bertie and I grinned together.
"Maybe you should follow suit," she said. "E-mail Hanover and decline the position."
"That's not an option," I told her. "The parent was a volunteer. I'm an employee. Mr. Hanover thought that giving me the position was a great idea. He said it would ease me back into full-time work before the next semester starts."
"Right," said Bertie. "Because that's what every mother wants before Christmas. More stuff to do."
I lifted my hands helplessly. "I didn't have a choice. Mr. Hanover steamrolled over all my objections. He said the event was already primed and all I had to do was step in and make sure that nothing went seriously awry."
"Awry? That's the word he used?"
"Prig," Bertie said again. "With a capital P."
The Mini's puppy's legs were finished. I moved on to the rounded pompon at the end of her tail. "He's actually a pretty good guy," I told her. "You'd probably like him if you met him."
"Well, that's not going to happen," Bertie replied. She reached into a pen and scooped out a Toy Poodle. Then she turned and looked at me, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Is it?"
"I don't know," I said innocently. "Could be."
Bertie crossed the room and plunked the Toy Poodle down on the other tabletop. "Melanie Travis, what are you up to now? And what makes you think there's even the slightest possibility that I might want to be involved?"
I gestured toward the Mini, now brushed, and fluffed, and ready to scissor. "This one's good to go. Don't you want to work on her next?"
"If you think I would even dream of letting you change the subject, you must be delusional." Bertie retrieved a cloth case from a nearby shelf, unzipped it, and set a pair of Japanese scissors down on the edge of my grooming table. "Here you go. Your trims are every bit as good as mine. Have at it."
Aunt Peg would have disagreed with that assessment. Not me. I accepted the compliment with pleasure, and went to work.
The Mini Poodle was young, but she already knew what was expected of her. When I slid my fingers beneath her chest, lifted slightly, then dropped her front legs into a square stance, she raised her head and held the position. I picked up the scissors, ran the long blades lightly up the puppy's leg to lift the hair, and began to trim.
"I agreed to go back to work at Howard Academy as a teacher," I said. "Not a circus ringmaster."
"We're talking about a few booths in a school auditorium, right? How bad can it be?"
"Have you ever been to the Howard Academy Christmas Bazaar?"
"Heck, no. Why would I want to do that?"
"It's mayhem. Out-of-control chaos. A veritable zoo."
Bertie, busy popping the rubber bands that had held the Toy Poodle's long topknot hair up and out of the way, thought for a minute then said, "Luckily you're very good with animals."
"That's not funny," I grumbled. "But it does segue nicely into my next point."
"One of the attractions is a Santa Claus and Pets Photo Booth. The school has hired a photographer and students have been encouraged to bring their dogs and cats to the bazaar to get their pictures taken with Santa. Mr. Hanover's secretary is already working on the arrangements but he wants me to help out, too. He thought it would be right up my alley."
"I can see that," said Bertie. She turned on the water in the big, utility sink and checked the temperature with her fingers. The Toy Poodle was about to have a bath.
"The pictures will be uploaded on the spot and parents will have the option of having them turned into Christmas cards," I said, raising my voice to be heard above the running water. "It's a great idea and I'm hoping that the booth will be a big moneymaker. I thought I'd walk around the shows this weekend and try to drum up business among the exhibitors."
Bertie wasn't the only one who'd be spending the next several days driving back and forth to the "Big E" Exposition Center in Massachusetts. My son, Davey, had his Standard Poodle, Augie, entered in the dog shows as well. The big black dog had spent the previous five months away from the show ring, growing hair — enough to balance out his new continental trim. Davey was delighted that his pet was finally ready to make his adult debut.
"You'll be swamped," said Bertie. "Especially if you have to oversee that booth and everything else."
"That's what I'm thinking."
"You ought to tell Hanover that you need some help."
"I already did."
Bertie was bent over the sink. She had one hand covering the Toy Poodle's eyes. The other held the nozzle and directed the spray toward the loose topknot hair. She looked back over her shoulder at me and frowned.
"No," she said firmly. "No way."
"It will be fun," I told her brightly.
"No, it won't. It will be chaos. You just told me as much. Besides, I'm busy next Saturday."
"No, you're not. I looked at the calendar. It's December. There isn't a decent dog show within two hundred miles."
"I'm sure I must be doing something."
"You're not," I said. "I even checked with Frank. He told me you were free."
"Frank's a traitor," Bertie muttered. "I wouldn't believe a word he says."
Funny thing about that. I'd felt the same way about my feckless younger brother for years. But meeting Bertie was the best thing that ever could have happened to him. Not only had she become a steadying influence in his life, but it also turned out that Frank's desire to live up to his wife's expectations was the impetus he'd needed to finally outgrow his irresponsible ways.
"Come on," I said. "Give me a hand. It's for a good cause."
Bertie sighed. She was wavering, I could tell.
"Between the kids, and Santa, and the pets, there's going to be a lot going on. You know I'll need someone there who's really good with dogs. And the best person I could think of was you."
"Not Aunt Peg?"
I lifted a brow. "Can you picture Aunt Peg in an elf costume?"
"Wait a minute." Bertie spun around. "You didn't say anything about an elf costume."
"Before you answer," she warned, "bear in mind that it's a deal breaker."
"Then no," I said quickly. "The costume isn't mandatory. Though I bet you'd look cute in a pair of striped tights."
That was an understatement. Bertie was gorgeous. She had thick auburn hair, killer cheekbones, and the kind of body that instantly rendered every other woman practically invisible. If anyone could pull off a forest-green tunic and pointy shoes, it would be my sister-in-law.
"Don't even think about it," she said.
Excerpted from The Bark Before Christmas by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2015 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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