Summer means two things to Melanie Travis: a break from her teaching duties at Connecticut’s elite Howard Academy and a chance to plan the perfect wedding to her fiancé, Sam. She certainly doesn’t need the unwelcome arrival of a dinner invitation “peace offering” from Sam’s ex-wife, Sheila Vaughn. To make matters worse, Sheila announces her temporary stay in town is now permanent: she’s accepted a job as co-publisher of Woof!, a new gossip rag for the dog show world. But before the first issue is out, a hotter story breaks when Sheila is strangled with a leather dog leash.
As far as Melanie’s concerned, the woman should have been on a leash long ago. And it seems she isn’t alone in her dislike of Sheila. Some of Woof!’s salacious stories threatened to expose the dirty paws of quite a few important exhibitors, and someone on Sheila’s staff may have found her high-handed attitude worth silencing. It will take the instincts of a bloodhound to sniff out a killer who’s bent on putting an end to Melanie’s amateur sleuthing…
“For pet fans who thrive on dog-show lore, Berenson’s brand is always best in show.”—Kirkus Reviews
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A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2000 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
Run, I thought. Run like the wind.
Instead I heard myself say, "Sure, Sheila, that sounds like fun."
About as much fun as knee surgery.
"Wonderful." Sheila's low, husky voice flowed through the phone line. "I'm so glad you can come. Brian and I will look forward to it."
"Sam and I will, too."
Liar, I thought as I hung up the phone. Idiot.
I don't often call myself names, but in this case it was justified. Though Sam Driver is my fiancé, I don't usually accept social engagements on his behalf without checking with him first. Especially not when they've been extended by his ex-wife.
Sheila Vaughn is a relatively new wrinkle in my otherwise placid life. Not that there haven't been other wrinkles, mind you, just that this one tended to be more annoying than most. I was supposed to be planning a wedding — mine — but both Sam and I had been so busy, we hadn't exactly gotten around to setting a date yet.
Meanwhile, Sheila had shown up in March for what was supposed to be a three-month stint in the Northeast. Now it was mid-July. That made four months and counting, by my calendar.
On the other hand, just the fact that it was summer meant that I had cause for celebration. I'm a teacher, so June, July, and August are, hands down, my favorite months. I'd spent the last year working as a special needs tutor at Howard Academy, a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. The transition from the public school system to the private sector had been rocky at times, and I was delighted to have two successful semesters behind me.
Also thrilled by the fact that it was summer, was my six-year-old son Davey. He was enrolled in soccer camp, a move recommended by my ex-husband, who lived halfway across the country with his new wife. Since I'd been a single parent for most of Davey's life, I resent it like crazy when Bob comes up with good ideas like that.
I wasn't about to tell him, but Davey was thriving at camp. Not only that, but he and his best friend, Joey Brickman, had convinced half the kids in the neighborhood to sign up, too, which meant I only had to drive the car pool twice a week. For once, it was looking like I mostly had things under control.
If you didn't count that fact that our Standard Poodle, Faith, was seven weeks pregnant with her first litter of puppies.
Or that Sheila Vaughn seemed determined to remain a part of Sam's and my lives. I hadn't heard a word from her or about her in more than a month, until that unexpected phone call. With warning, I might have come up with a good excuse. Or even a bad one. Anything would have been better than what I'd done: mutter and mumble, then blurt out, "Sure."
Just a casual dinner at her house in North Salem, Sheila had said. Don't dress up. No need to bring a thing.
It all sounded so simple. There had to be a catch. In my life, there was always a catch.
I wondered what it would be this time.
"Tell me again who the other guy is," Sam said.
He'd arrived at my house, looking casually gorgeous in a faded polo shirt, pressed khakis, and sockless topsiders. Judging by the warm glow of his skin, the white-blond highlights in his tousled hair, or the way the squint lines framed his deep blue eyes, one might have guessed he'd spent the warm, summer day sailing on Long Island Sound.
Looks can be deceiving though. Not only did Sam not own a boat, but as far as I knew, he was a pretty inept sailor. What he was good at was designing software systems for the legion of clients who hired him to make their networks user-friendly. No doubt he'd actually spent the day squinting at his computer screen and raking his fingers impatiently through that rumpled hair.
By the time he arrived to pick me up at six o'clock, I'd already delivered Davey to Joey Brickman's house, where my son was going to be spending the night. Faith was home, though. As always, she greeted Sam like a member of the family, planting her front paws on his chest and dancing delightedly around him on her toes.
Faith is a Standard Poodle, the largest of the three varieties. She has thick, black hair which, since she's taking some time off from the show ring, is currently in a modified continental trim. Her dark, expressive eyes reveal volumes about her intelligence and empathy; and her tail, which she carries straight up in the air, is always wagging.
When I was seven months pregnant, I'd looked like I was wearing a barrel. Impending motherhood hadn't cramped Faith's style, however. With two weeks left to go in the nine-week gestation, she looked thicker through the middle but was otherwise unchanged. Certainly her love of life hadn't diminished one bit.
And right now, she had her legs wrapped around the sexiest man I knew. Lucky dog.
"Sheila mentioned his name," I said in answer to Sam's question. Frowning, I tried to remember. "Ryan, maybe? She said he's her new business partner. Kind of implied he's her new boyfriend, too."
"If they're in business together, she must be working with him on the magazine."
"It's called Woof!, and it's a new start-up. The first issue should be out any day now. I'm surprised you didn't get a flyer asking you to subscribe. I got one about a month ago."
"I may have," I admitted. "Things get so hectic at the end of the school year that I tend to throw out anything that even resembles junk mail. I probably tossed it."
While we were talking, I'd gathered up my cotton cardigan and the bottle of chilled Pouilly-Fuisse I had waiting by the door. Faith got a large Milk-Bone, a scratch under the chin, and the reassurance that we would be back before it was too late, then we were on our way.
Sam's Blazer was sitting behind my station wagon in the driveway. The skirt I'd worn was teal linen, short enough and tight enough that in order to get into the SUV, I was going to have to turn my back to the seat and hop up into place.
Sam opened the car door, saw my dilemma, and reached around to help. He fitted his hands to either side of my waist and lifted. Easily, I landed on the seat.
"Thanks," I said, sliding my bare calf up the side of his leg. "I'm glad you noticed."
"With that much leg exposed?" His fingers drifted down onto my thigh, and I heard the smile in his voice. "Only a blind man wouldn't notice. You don't have to compete with her, you know."
"Her, who? Sheila?" I sat up straight and spun around to face forward.
Looking thoughtful, Sam closed the car door. He waited until he was behind the wheel and the car was moving before speaking again. "You're the one who accepted this invitation. I thought you wanted to go."
"She caught me by surprise," I admitted grumpily. "Saying all sorts of things about how we should let bygones be bygones. That now that she understands how things are between you and me, she just wants us all to be friends."
"Friends." The word seemed to stick in Sam's throat.
Four months earlier, I'd have felt a pinch of jealousy, but I'm getting much better about things like that. Plus, recently I'd had my Aunt Peg running interference and keeping Sheila, for the most part, out of Sam's and my way. Which was a huge relief considering that the woman had spent the first part of her East Coast sojourn trying to entice Sam back to her side.
It was only one dinner, I told myself. One evening out of my life. So how bad could it be?
It never hurts to be forewarned, however, and I decided to catch up on what Sheila had been doing since the last time Sam and I had spoken about her.
"Tell me about the new magazine," I said, as Sam pulled out onto High Ridge Road and headed north toward New York. "I thought Sheila worked in marketing. Didn't she come to New York on a temporary assignment for her job?"
"That was the original plan. But once she got here and began going to dog shows, she met a whole different crowd of exhibitors than she'd known in the Midwest."
Dogs are the one thing we all have in common. Thanks to my Aunt Peg, whose line of Cedar Crest Standard Poodles is renowned throughout the dog show world for their beauty and fine temperament, I'd been introduced two years earlier to the sport of dogs. Faith was one of Peg's Poodles, of course — a gift whose presence had enhanced every facet of Davey's and my lives.
Sam was a Standard Poodle breeder as well, though on a smaller scale than Aunt Peg. His ex-wife, Sheila, bred Pugs; and five of them had accompanied her East.
If this evening ran true to form, we'd probably spend the majority of our time discussing nothing but our canine companions. Considering the other options, it wasn't an all-bad prospect.
"I'm somewhat sketchy on the details of how it all came about," said Sam.
He slid a glance my way. When Sheila'd first arrived I'd been a little sensitive about the amount of time he'd spent talking to her on the phone, or running to make repairs every time a faucet leaked or a fence broke in the older home she'd rented. All right, a lot sensitive.
But at the time, the fact that Sheila existed at all had just come as a rude shock. On top of that, she hadn't made any secret of her intentions. Sheila wanted Sam back, and didn't care who she had to push out of the way to get him.
You can see why she might have taken some getting used to.
Eventually Sheila had gotten the point and things had finally begun to settle down. Supposedly, this dinner was her way of making amends. Call me a cynic, but I was still reserving judgment.
"All I know is that Sheila got hooked up with someone who was looking to start up another dog show magazine. She looked at the prospectus and thought they could make it fly."
"There are already plenty of show magazines out there," I said, ticking off a few on my fingers. "Dogs in Review, Canine Chronicle, Dog News. Why would anyone think there's a need, or a market, for another?"
"Apparently, Woof! is going to be different." Sam grimaced slightly. "Most of what I know about it, I read in the flyer. It looks like it's aiming to be pretty sensational. The pitch promises subscribers 'all the news, all the gossip, all the dirt, you won't find anywhere else.' "
"Kind of like the National Enquirer?" I asked, grinning. Sheila the muckraker. What a copacetic arrangement.
"Something like that."
"And she quit her other job to get involved with this?"
"Apparently so. Sheila seemed to think it was an excellent opportunity."
"What do you think?"
"That the whole thing is none of my business," Sam said firmly. "Sheila's an intelligent woman who's more than capable of making her own decisions. It's probably not the path I would have chosen, but I'm in no position to say what might be right or wrong for her."
Well, I thought, he could talk the talk. It remained to be seen whether or not he would hold to that resolve.
The drive through North Stamford and up into lower Westchester County wound through a succession of narrow country roads flanked on either side by beautiful older homes and lavishly maintained estates. Part of me enjoyed the view. The other part — that small, petty, portion of my personality that I obviously hadn't worked hard enough to quash — noted that Sam navigated the tricky course with the total assurance of someone who'd driven it plenty of times before.
When we got to Sheila's house, it wasn't what I'd expected. Sam had described the home as somewhat dilapidated, hence the need for his frequent repairs; a rental that Sheila had taken, in large part, because the owner had not objected to her five dogs. What Sam had neglected to mention, however, was that the property was truly charming.
The small house was set back off the road, at the end of a rutted dirt driveway. A large lawn wrapped around three sides of the house. Thick woods beyond it obscured the neighbors. Birds were singing in a lush maple tree that grew by the front door. As we parked at the end of the driveway, a cherry red male cardinal swooped down and landed on a bird feeder beside the porch.
"It's lovely," I said, opening my door and breathing in the moist, evening air.
"It needs paint," Sam said absently. He was staring at a car that was parked by the small shed that served as a detached garage.
It was a black Porsche Boxster; a car designed, as far as I could tell, for the express purpose of making grown men drool. In an instant, the rest of the evening flashed before my eyes: the two men out here, beers in hand, heads poked under the hood, comparing notes on such endlessly fascinating topics as wind resistance and turbocharged engines, while Sheila and I hovered in the background and chatted like a pair of sorority sisters. Yuck.
I walked around the Blazer and linked my arm through Sam's. He was still staring.
"Maybe he'll let you drive it, if you ask nicely enough."
"It's not that."
"Probably nothing." Sam shook his head slightly. "For a moment, I thought —"
As we stepped up onto the porch, a chorus of canine voices sounded from within the house. The Pugs were heralding our arrival. Before we could knock, the door opened.
Sheila had a glass of red wine in one hand and a dazzling smile on her perfectly outlined lips. Her filmy sundress looked more like a slip than outerwear, and her ivory skin glowed in the light of a dozen candles that flickered in her front hall.
"Sam, Melanie, I'm so glad you could make it. Come on in. Let me introduce everyone. Brian, where are you?"
"Right behind you." He walked through the archway from the living room and placed his palms on Sheila's naked shoulders.
He looked tall standing behind her, but then, Sheila was tiny. Still, it was hard not to notice the possessiveness implicit in his gesture. Both of them had dark hair, Sheila's, straight and shiny, swinging in a long fringe to just above her collarbone. Brian's hair grew in thick, tight curls and was complemented by a thick mustache that obscured his upper lip.
His eyes were dark, too. Piercingly so, I noted as they flickered past me and came to rest on Sam. His brow lowered slightly as he smiled, showing white, even teeth. The expression looked more like a feral grin than a welcoming gesture.
"Melanie, I'd like you to meet Brian Endicott."
Automatically, I stuck out a hand. Brian followed suit.
"Sam?" Sheila paused. For just the briefest moment, she looked uncertain, then her smile returned. "You remember Brian, don't you?" "Yes," said Sam. It sounded as though he was speaking through clenched teeth.
"Driver." Brian nodded tersely.
I guessed this meant I didn't have to worry about them bonding over the Boxster.
"Won't this be fun?" Sheila said brightly. "Just like old times; well, except for Melanie, of course. But don't worry, dear, we'll get you caught up in no time."
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I should just make my life easier and run right then. Unfortunately, good manners, drummed in since birth, asserted themselves. I plastered a smile on my face, took Sam's cold hand in mine, and followed Sheila inside.CHAPTER 2
"What's going on?" I whispered, crowding close to Sam as we found seats on a chintz-slipcovered love seat.
Sheila had gone to the kitchen to fetch drinks. Brian was gazing out a picture window that overlooked the backyard. I wondered why both men seemed to feel the need to place the length of a room between them.
"Nothing good," Sam muttered, as Brian turned to face us.
"You're not afraid of big dogs, are you, Melanie?" he asked.
"No, of course not." I wondered what that had to do with anything. "I have a Standard Poodle at home."
"I should have guessed. One of Sam's?"
"No, I got Faith from my Aunt Peg. Margaret Turnbull, Cedar Crest Standard Poodles?"
"You're related to Margaret Turnbull?" Brian sounded impressed. "Sheila didn't mention that."
"Didn't mention what?"
Sheila reentered the room carrying a small tray with drinks and a platter of cheese and crackers. Quickly both men moved to help her. Sam was closer. Was I imagining things or did he look vaguely triumphant as he lifted the platter from her tray and set it on the coffee table?
"That Melanie's aunt was dog show royalty."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the tension building in the room, I found myself laughing. "I'm sure Aunt Peg would be mortified to hear herself described that way."
Excerpted from Unleashed by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2000 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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