Professional pet sitter Daphne Templeton loves the holidays in Sylvan Creek, Pennsylvania. And nothing gets her into the spirit more than the town’s annual Bark the Halls Ball. The whole community will be there to wag their tails, especially this year’s special guest—Celeste “CeeCee” French, founder of a national chain of pet care franchises, who’s returning home to announce plans for a bright new flagship store.
But not everyone’s celebrating CeeCee’s homecoming. Daphne’s friend Moxie Bloom, owner of Spa and Paw, a unique salon for people and their pets, has plenty to growl about. So when CeeCee is found face down under Sylvan Creek's town Christmas tree, stabbed with a distinctive pair of professional-grade pet shears, suspicion lands squarely on Moxie. Despite Daphne’s promises to Detective Jonathan Black, she quickly reprises her role as amateur sleuth. Ably assisted by her basset hound sidekick, Socrates, she must hurry to prove her friend’s innocence before a killer barks again . . .
Includes recipes for homemade pet treats!
“Doggone charming from start to finish!”
—Cleo Coyle, New York Times bestselling author on Death by Chocolate Lab
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The weather outside was beyond frightful, with near-blizzard conditions pummeling the quaint, pet-friendly town of Sylvan Creek, Pennsylvania, and burying the surrounding Pocono Mountains under a thick blanket of fine, icy snow.
But inside my snug little home, Plum Cottage, conditions were truly delightful as my sister Piper Templeton, my best friend Moxie Bloom and I prepared for Christmas and two of our hometown's favorite traditions: a free showing of It's a Wonderful Life at the old Bijoux theater and the local chamber of commerce's Bark the Halls Ball for people and pets. A fire crackled in the arched stone fireplace, bayberry-scented candles burned on the mantel, and mulled wine simmered in a Crock-Pot, the warm drink the perfect complement to a savory blue cheese and pecan strudel that waited on my kitchen counter. Soft, staticky Christmas music, which played on an ancient Bakelite radio left behind by my home's former tenant, added to the cozy, jolly ambiance.
Not that there weren't a few glitches as we jingled all the way toward the holidays.
"Um, can someone please help me?" Moxie asked from my tiny living room, where she was stringing big, colorful, old-fashioned lights onto the pint-sized, crooked, needle-challenged Christmas tree I'd found discarded behind the lot at Pinkney's Pines tree farm, just outside of town. Moxie's voice sounded a bit panicked when she requested, a second time, "A little help here, please!"
I was busy mixing dough to make several dozen dog-friendly Pupper- Mint Candy Cane Twists for the ball, which would be attended by most of Sylvan Creek's many canines, but I glanced over to see that Moxie had not only managed to wrap herself in the lights, but also plug herself in.
"Oh, good grief," Piper said, in suitable Charlie Brown fashion. My sensible sibling, who was sitting on the living room floor assembling goody bags for the dance, untwisted her crossed legs, rose, and went to unravel poor Moxie, who actually looked quite festive, in my opinion.
Vintage-loving Moxie wore a 1950s Nordic-patterned sweater with knitted reindeer prancing across the chest, and her short, spiky hair — dyed Santa-suit red — fairly glowed like the lights that were inexplicably looped around her body.
"How did this even happen?" Piper asked, unplugging my best friend and slowly spinning her, as a particularly strong gust of wind slammed into the cottage, causing the fire to nearly gutter out before it crackled merrily to life again. Outside in the darkness, the plum tree that lent my home its name rapped against one window, a sure sign that the weather was bad. Then Piper nodded at the indoor tree, which was surrounded by a dusting of newly fallen needles. "Moxie, why are you decorated, while the latest 'fir-ry' stray Daphne's brought home is still bare?"
Although she was a veterinarian and loved animals, Piper was sometimes frustrated by the fact that — as proprietor of Daphne Templeton's Lucky Paws Pet Sitting service — I was supposed to earn money by caring for pets, but often ended up taking in fosters for free. That wouldn't have been any of her business if Plum Cottage hadn't been located on her property, gorgeous Winding Hill Farm, making her my landlord. Not that I was too far behind on my rent anymore, since my other business, a mod-themed bakery for pets called Flour Power, was kind of booming.
"Seriously," Piper said, when Moxie was finally free. My sister stepped back and planted her hands on her hips. "What went wrong?"
"I have no idea," Moxie admitted, giving the lights, which lay tangled on the floor, a wary look, as if they were poisonous snakes. Or, worse yet, rabid turtles. She had a very bad case of chelonaphobia. "It just seems to happen every year!"
Piper clearly didn't know how to respond. But over by the fireplace, where he lay on his favorite Turkish rug, my taciturn basset hound sidekick, Socrates, rolled his eyes and thunked over sideways.
Socrates was often exasperated by Moxie Bloom. And he sometimes seemed disapproving of me, too. Especially when I got caught up in murder investigations — which would not happen again, after my last attempt to solve a homicide ended with my facing my own worst fear of getting locked in Flour Power's unpredictable walk-in refrigerator.
As I shaped plain and pink-tinted dough into cute candy-cane-shaped cookies, I thought back to that horrible evening, when Detective Jonathan Black had practically torn off the walk-in's heavy, metal door, and I'd tumbled into his arms, close to hyperventilating.
I hadn't run into the handsome, enigmatic former Navy SEAL since that fateful, somewhat embarrassing night, although I sometimes wondered how he was doing. In particular, I hoped that an illness he'd once battled remained at bay. And I kept my fingers crossed that he'd continued to bond with the dogs I'd sort of foisted upon him. I knew that, as a former handler in the Navy, he got along with Axis, a chocolate Lab with agility experience, but even I had to admit that reserved, thoughtful Jonathan was a strange match for one-eared, drooling, exuberant Artie the Chihuahua.
"So, do you think Detective Black will attend the ball?" Moxie asked, as if reading my mind, which I believed she could do. She seemed to have shaken off the light incident and had joined me in the kitchen, where she ladled wine into three waiting earthenware mugs. Apparently, she was done decorating for the evening. And I was almost finished with the cookies, too. Opening the door to my old gas oven, I slid a tray inside, then dusted flour off my hands before accepting one of the drinks from Moxie, whose green eyes were twinkling. "I would love to see Jonathan Black in a tux!"
"I have no idea if Jonathan will show up at the dance," I told her, setting the mug on the counter again, just for a minute, so I could put two of the already baked and cooled candy canes onto a plate, which I set on the floor in case Socrates got hungry. Spying a pair of orange eyes blinking at me from behind the herbs I grew on my windowsill, I also found a treat for my surly, black Persian boarder, Tinkleston, who was being his usual Scrooge self — although he didn't bite my hand when I offered him a Holly Jolly Chicken Muncher. We'd made a lot of progress since the days when he used to ambush everyone who came within a few feet of his deceptive puffball paws.
Daring to pat Tinks's head — and earning a halfhearted hiss — I again picked up my wine and the wooden tray that held the strudel. Leading the way to the living room, I set my mug and the log of crispy phyllo, stuffed with cream cheese, Roquefort, and candied pecans, onto a steamer trunk that served as my coffee table.
Moxie put Piper's wine on the trunk, too, before curling up on my loveseat, while my sister, who in two minutes had managed to artfully arrange the lights on the tree, stuck the plug back in the socket.
Suddenly, ringed with softly glowing red, orange, yellow, and blue lights, the little tree seemed more adorable than pathetic.
"I haven't seen Jonathan in months," I noted, taking a seat on a Moroccan floor pillow and cutting a few pieces of strudel. "But I guarantee you that, if he does attend, Axis and Artie, at least, will not be in formal wear."
Piper joined me on the floor, but she didn't take a break. She resumed assembling the goody bags, using scissors to curl red ribbons she'd tied to the handles of green paper sacks that were filled with local products and coupons for Sylvan Creek businesses. I'd contributed cat treats and a voucher for a dog walk, while Moxie, who owned a unique salon for people and pets, called Spa and Paw, had offered one free shampoo and blowout. The little card she'd created didn't make it clear if the treatments were for human or animal clients. Maybe both.
"I love this dance, but I have to agree with Detective Black about the wisdom of putting bow ties and ball gowns on dogs," Piper said, swiping at a ribbon and making a perfect spiral. The springy coils were like better versions of my long, curly, dirty-blond hair. Then she jerked the scissors toward Socrates. "I bet he's not wearing a suit!"
Socrates, who'd righted himself, hung his head and averted his gaze.
"Actually, he will wear a tie," I told Piper, whose brown eyes, very different from my grayish-green ones, widened with disbelief. "While he doesn't believe in tacky sweaters or costumes, he has a sense of decorum," I added. "He wouldn't show up at a black-tie affair naked!"
Socrates whined softly, as if he still felt uncomfortable about the prospect of wearing the very understated neckwear I'd purchased for him at my friend Tessie Flinchbaugh's pet emporium, Fetch!
"So, what are you wearing, Daphne?" Moxie asked, breaking off a tiny piece of phyllo and offering the treat to her white rat, Sebastian, who'd popped out of his mobile den — a furry white muff Moxie had left by the door — then trotted fearlessly across the floor and climbed onto the loveseat. I used to worry that Tinks would make a snack of Sebastian, but the two animals seemed to have reached a peace accord. That was probably Sebastian's doing. He was a very sweet rat. Moxie settled back, absently stroking Sebastian while he nibbled on the pastry. "More important, who are you going with? Gabriel?"
I occasionally dated the devilishly handsome owner of and sole reporter at the Sylvan Creek Weekly Gazette, but we kept things casual. In part, because Gabriel, while always funny and often charming, had a complicated past that had left him somewhat scarred and jaded.
Piper, who was getting serious with incredibly nice, uncomplicated Professor Roger Berendt, didn't hide the fact that she was wary of my sometime suitor.
"Yes, Daphne," my sister said, looking up from her task. The lenses of her eyeglasses glinted in the firelight. "Will you be attending the ball with your dashing, witty journalist friend?"
She made those compliments sound like insults. But I was more forgiving of Gabriel's sometimes acerbic, morbid sense of humor, because I knew its roots.
"Gabriel hasn't even mentioned the dance," I told Moxie and Piper, as I licked some cheese off my fingers. "He's swamped at the Gazette, and I've been busy, too, between pet-sitting gigs for holiday travelers and baking for Flour Power. Gabriel and I had a difficult enough time scheduling a quick cup of coffee tomorrow, at Oh, Beans." I shrugged. "Plus, I get the sense that he's not a big fan of yuletide traditions."
"Hmmm ..." Moxie had a funny gleam in her eyes again. The kind she got when she was thinking of a certain detective, upon whom she had an unabashed crush. "Daphne, since you probably aren't attending Bark the Halls with Gabriel, and we all know that poor little Artie would love to dress up, why don't you call Jonathan Black and offer to be in charge of Artie's attire? And if Detective Black wanted to tag along with you and the dogs —"
"No!" I protested, speaking over Moxie and Socrates, who was whining softly again, urging me not to meddle, although Artie was his best ... only ... canine buddy. "Jonathan allowed me to dress up Artie for Halloween and the Winterfest sled parade," I reminded Moxie, sort of cringing, myself, at the memories of the Chihuahua in a clown costume and an old-timey velvet dress. "I don't think I can offer again. And I'm not asking Jonathan to the dance!"
"Why not?" Piper asked, finally abandoning the goody bags and edging closer to the trunk. Although I felt like we were back in the 1950s, between Moxie's outfit and the soft, crackly version of "White Christmas" playing in the kitchen, she reminded me, "It is the twenty-first century. Women ask men out!"
That was true, and I was all for equality. But I still didn't plan to call Jonathan, who might very well have another date already. I looked to Moxie. "I was thinking maybe we could go together. Make it a girls' night out."
"Oh, I don't know. ..." The glimmer in Moxie's eyes suddenly faded. "While I'm definitely going to It's a Wonderful Life with you, Daph, I'm not sure about the ball this year."
Piper and I both reared back, because everyone went to Bark the Halls, and Moxie, in particular, loved the event, which gave her the opportunity to wear one of the many vintage gowns that were stored somewhere — I could never figure out the spot — in her tiny garret apartment above the Philosopher's Tome used bookstore.
Socrates also seemed baffled by Moxie's comment. His wrinkly brow was more furrowed than usual.
"Why in the world are you even thinking about skipping Bark the Halls?" I finally asked. "Did you accidentally schedule something else for that date? Because I'm sure you could get out of it. ..."
I gave up trying to persuade her, because Moxie was shaking her head. And she seemed a little confused, too.
"Haven't you heard the talk around town?" she asked me and Piper, although we were usually out of the loop when it came to local gossip, all of which passed through Spa and Paw. Seeing that we obviously didn't know what she was referring to, Moxie proceeded to fill us in, telling us, in dramatic fashion, "There's no way that I, of all people, can attend a holiday dance when Celeste French is going, too!"CHAPTER 2
"So, who in the world is Celeste French, and why does she inspire so much fear and loathing?" Gabriel Graham inquired, when we finally secured a free table at Oh, Beans, the morning after Moxie's surprising announcement about the ball. The tiny Market Street coffee shop was crowded — and, to my dismay, currently staffed by one of my former high school teachers, Bitsy Bickelheim.
For the last few weeks, I'd been trying to avoid Ms. Bickelheim, who was not only a barista, and slightly erratic since quitting Sylvan Creek High years ago, but also heavily involved in the Sylvan Creek Players community theater league. I'd heard she was desperate to cast the Ghost of Christmas Future for the Players' rapidly looming production of A Christmas Carol, and I did not want to be approached about taking on the role. I had a bad habit of agreeing to things without thinking them through.
Catching my eye, Ms. Bickelheim waved, and I waved back, then quickly averted my gaze, looking around at the café's honey-colored, shiplap walls, which were hung with pine wreaths. Hundreds of white twinkle lights glowed like stars in the rafters, and candles burned in the old wooden-framed windows, warding off the gloomy, gray weather outside.
Gabriel certainly seemed oblivious to the dismal day. Rubbing his goatee, he sat back in his chair and grinned at me. "It's not like you to hate anyone," he noted. "Yet you've mentioned this Celeste woman three times since we got here, and you don't seem happy that she's coming to Sylvan Creek."
"'Hate' and 'loathing' are strong words," I told him, breathing a sigh of relief, because Ms. Bickelheim apparently wasn't going to come over and ask me about the part. She likely recalled that I'd played a small, spectral role in a previous local production of that same play, with disastrous results. Shaking off the memory of myself swinging from the high school auditorium's rafters, I wrapped my hands around my red enamel mug, which contained a gingerbread house-blend latte, and focused on Gabriel, who was watching me intently with his dark, intelligent eyes. "And I don't feel either hatred or loathing toward Celeste," I assured him. "Those are not productive emotions."
The corners of Gabriel's mouth twitched. "I suppose you have a dozen philosophical quotes on the dangers of succumbing to even intense dislike."
He was mocking my PhD in philosophy. "I could give you fifty quotes from Socrates alone," I told him, referencing the ancient Greek, not the dog who'd wisely stayed home by the hearth. "Plus, I haven't seen Celeste in years. She might be perfectly nice these days."
"Then why are you so worried about her coming here?" Gabriel asked. He sipped his drink, a plain Colombian roast, one cream, two sugars. Then he leaned forward, studying me more closely. "What's the story?"
"There's no story," I told him, my gaze flicking again to Ms. Bickelheim, to make sure she couldn't overhear us talking about one of her former students. Fortunately, she was distracted, struggling to fill carafes with milk and cream, her progress hampered by an unwieldy, amorphous, somewhat "artsy" fringed poncho. I turned back to Gabriel, warning him, "At least, there's nothing you can print in the Gazette."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Midwinter's Tail"
Copyright © 2018 Beth Kaszuba.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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