Once Bitten (A Melanie Travis Mystery)

BOOK: Once Bitten (A Melanie Travis Mystery)
7.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
“I guess you haven’t looked at today’s paper yet, Aunt Peg?”
“It’s still out by the mailbox. Shall I go get it?”
“No, I can read to you what’s in front of me. Sara Bentley’s cottage burned to the ground last night, and the body of a young woman was found inside.”
“Sara?” Peg gasped.
“It says that the body was badly burned and the police haven’t been able to make an identification yet.” I stared down at the paper, drumming my fingers on the page.
“Where had Sara been for the last week, and why did she suddenly decide to come back? And why on the night that the cottage burned down?”
“Maybe she had something to do with the fire,” said Peg, voicing my thoughts aloud. “Does it say what started it?”
“No.” I read the official wording. “ ‘Cause of the blaze has yet to be determined.’ That could mean anything.”
“Including that the fire marshal knows what happened, and they just haven’t released their findings yet.” Aunt Peg paused. “Here’s a gruesome thought. What if Sara didn’t return to her cottage last night? What if she’s been dead since she disappeared and the murderer brought her body back?”
“Oh, Lord.” It was definitely too early in the morning for me to deal with possibilities like that.
Books by Laurien Berenson




Published by Kensington Books
Once Bitten
A Melanie Travis Mystery
Laurien Berenson
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
This book is fondly dedicated to the hardest working
men and women of the dog show world:
the professional handlers.
Without them, the show wouldn’t go on.


I’d especially like to mention the contingent of East Coast
Poodle handlers, past and present, whose presence so indelibly
shaped my dog show experiences: Mark Shanoff,
Wendell Sammett, Kaz Kosaka, Patty and Danny Jenner,
Richard Bauer, Pamm Hall, Dennis McCoy, Michael
Pawasarat, Paul Edwards, and Koko Kaneko. I didn’t enjoy
being beaten by you, but I always learned something.


Thanks, guys.
t’s not that hard to recover from a broken heart. I should know. Do you want to hear the secret?
It’s this: just breathe. In, out. In, out. See how simple that is? You’d be amazed how much time can pass while you just concentrate on that one thing.
In, out. In, out.
My fiancé, Sam, had left in July. He needed to find himself, he’d said. As far as I knew, he was still looking. Meanwhile, my life had gone on. Now it was November, and I was still breathing. Still doing okay.
What choice did I have? Just because Sam was gone didn’t mean I had the luxury of putting everything else on hold. Not even close.
My son, Davey, had turned seven in September and entered second grade. His father, my ex-husband, Bob, had sent a card from Texas. Enclosed, Davey had found a roundtrip plane ticket.
Come visit any time
, Bob had written.
I’d love to see you
. Davey seemed intrigued by the thought of his first cross-country trip.
As for me, I was still mulling over the offer. Considering that Bob’s input into Davey’s life had been virtually nonexistent for most of my son’s seven years, I figured I’d be ready to put Davey on a plane to Texas when he graduated from high school or when Poodles grew wings.
Whichever came first.
Ah, yes, the Poodles. They were keeping me busy, too. Until recently, there’d only been one dog in my life: a wondrous Standard Poodle named Faith. Black and beautiful, big, and blessed with a wicked sense of humor, Faith is all anyone could hope for in a pet.
Before my Aunt Peg gave her to me as a reward for a job well done, I’d never had a dog. Never understood how a pair of dark, expressive eyes and a paw laid gently across my knee could open a whole new door to my emotions. Faith came into Davey’s life and mine as an exuberant puppy. Now, at the somewhat mature age of two and a half, she has lost none of her
joie de vivre.
She has also recently become a mother. Or dam, in dog parlance—and Aunt Peg would be the first to correct my terminology. In dog show circles, she is Margaret Turnbull of Cedar Crest Standard Poodles. A breeder and exhibitor of more than thirty years’ standing, Aunt Peg has won and done just about everything there is to do in the sport of dogs.
Faith had had a litter of puppies in July. Aided by Peg’s expert advice, Davey and I had selected a girl to keep for our own. Davey had already named the puppy Eve when she was born, and I liked the symbolism the name implied. Though I couldn’t imagine I’d ever have Aunt Peg’s longevity in the breed, I did harbor the hope that this litter would be the beginning of a line that would someday make me proud.
In the meantime, Eve’s upbringing was one more thing to wedge into my already tight schedule. Aunt Peg, who insists that her puppies be gotten off to the best possible start, was helping out. During the week when I was working as special needs tutor at Howard Academy, a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, Peg was keeping Eve at her house to ensure that she received the thorough socializing that all young puppies need.
The only other thing I had to worry about was the wedding.
When Sam and I were still together, we’d thought about getting married on Christmas Eve. Now, as things turned out, there was going to be a Christmas ceremony after all. Just not mine, unfortunately. Instead, I’d gotten roped into helping out with my brother Frank’s wedding.
Life is full of little ironies, isn’t it?
e’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.
“Good friend?”
“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.”
“Which was?”
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
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.”
“With Sara?”
“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.”
Fat chance.
“I want you to keep her under control.”
BOOK: Once Bitten (A Melanie Travis Mystery)
7.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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