Collared for Murder

Collared for Murder

by Annie Knox

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Overview

Groomed for Murder’s Izzy McHale is back, and her pet boutique, Trendy Tails, is raking in the green. But someone else in town is seeing red.…

The Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization is bringing its annual weeklong retreat to Merryville, Minnesota. While that’s perfect for Izzy’s business, it unleashes headaches for everyone else. The event has lots of workshops on the care and breeding of cats, and it culminates in a cat show with a fabulous prize—a platinum collar dangle worth some big bucks.

Cattiness, of course, ensues. But the claws really come out after the prize disappears, and the wealthy director, Phillip Denford, is done in with a pair of grooming shears. Now Izzy and her furry friends, Packer and Jinx, can’t waste time pussyfooting around. They have to solve this case before a killer pounces again.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451241139
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Series: A Pet Boutique Mystery , #2
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 786,659
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 4.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Annie Knox is the national bestselling author of the Pet Boutique mysteries, including Paws for Murder and Groomed for Murder. She doesn’t commit—or solve—murders in her real life, but her passion for animals is one hundred percent true. She’s also a devotee of eighties music, Asian horror films, and reality TV. While Annie is a native Buckeye and has called a half dozen states home, she and her husband now live a stone’s throw from the courthouse square in a north Texas town in their very own crumbling historic house.

Read an Excerpt

PRAISE FOR THE PET BOUTIQUE MYSTERIES

Also by Wendy Watson Writing as Annie Knox

OBSIDIAN

For Todd. You were an inspiration to us all.

Acknowledgments

CHAPTER

Dee Dee Lahti stood in the middle of Ballroom One at the North Woods Hotel, her aqua kaftan billowing in the intermittent wind from an oscillating fan, a patient Maine coon hanging from her hands by his armpits. She cocked her frizzy head, scanning the hutches and velvet-draped cages lining the benches. Her mouth—generously outlined in mauve—moved softly as she maintained a running conversation with herself.

Without warning, she lurched forward and down, as though she were falling, and began to shove the cat into a pink leopard-print and PVC hutch.

Pamela Rawlins had been chatting idly with me as I arranged my chiffon ruffs, hand-wrought collar dangles, and delicate clips sporting rhinestones, bows, and small beaded flowers on my vendor’s table. When Dee Dee crammed that cat into the hutch, though, she stiffened and sucked in a breath, her patrician nostrils pinching shut. “I swear, that woman has less sense than a box of hair,” she muttered.

“Dee Dee, darling,” she called. “You really must put the correct cat in the correct enclosure.” She bit off her words like a Connecticut blue blood. Or a shark.

Dee Dee looked up, her features scrunched in confusion.

“You can’t put Phantom in Charleston’s hutch.”

Dee Dee stared at the cat she had just deposited and then leaned in to look at the picture pinned to the outside of the enclosure. She stood straight and looked back at us, her expressive face slack, blank.

“You just put Phantom in Charleston’s hutch. Phantom should be in his own enclosure.” Nothing. “The cage with the red velvet drape.”

“Are you sure?” Dee Dee said.

Pamela took a beat. “Of course I’m sure, you . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence, but even Dee Dee knew where she was going.

Pamela was correct that Dee Dee Lahti was a few walleye short of a fish fry. Still, the residents of Merryville were one big dysfunctional family. We could harbor grudges against one another, whisper spiteful things behind one another’s backs, and, yes, even occasionally call Dee Dee Lahti “dingbat.” To her face. But Pamela wasn’t part of the family, and I felt a surge of protectiveness when she sniped at poor Dee Dee.

I’d seen Phantom and Charleston, both silver-and-white Maine coons. “Pamela,” I said, “it’s an easy mistake to make. The cats are almost identical.”

Pamela angled her body to face me, her small birdlike eyes utterly flat and emotionless. “I’m aware of that, Ms. McHale. Almost identical but not actually identical. If she can’t tell the difference between those silver markings, how will she tell the difference between two lilac-point Himalayans?”

I raised my chin a notch.

She allowed herself a tight shake of her head. “This is all highly irregular. I told Marsha Denford that we shouldn’t vary from our usual procedures. The annual retreat for the Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization has a pristine reputation precisely because we have rules and we follow them to the letter. Our silver anniversary is not the time to start bending those rules.”

I’d heard this argument a good dozen times since the M-CFO had decided to host their twenty-fifth annual retreat in our little town. Marsha Denford, wife of the organization’s president, Phillip Denford, had taken a shine to Pris Olson, owner of Prissy’s Pretty Pets. While the official rules of the organization specified that the cats were not to be handled by anyone other than the owners and the judges, Marsha had arranged for Pris to provide grooming services in the back corner of the ballroom, right next to the service entrance. Pris had a crackerjack crew of groomers, but she’d taken pity on Dee Dee Lahti—who was unemployed and in constant misery, thanks to her habitual criminal of a husband—by allowing her to help out. Dee Dee was not crackerjack.

Apparently sensing tension in the air, Pris left off supervising her employees and floated our way. “Pamela. Izzy. Is there a problem?” she cooed. Pris sported a perfectly painted beauty-pageant smile and a practiced, formal politeness that screamed privilege.

“Practiced” is the key word here. In public Pris defined “Minnesota nice.” The term refers to the smiling openness and back-bending helpfulness that most Minnesotans seemed to exude from birth. Sometimes Minnesota nice was genuine. Sometimes it was not.

I knew firsthand that Pris’s brilliant white smile could be a trap, a colorful Amazonian flower that promised sweet nectar before clamping shut around some poor, unsuspecting insect.

No one was safe. We were all insects in Pris’s world.

Now Pris and Pamela faced each other like a photograph and its negative: both tall, elegantly slim, hair pulled back in a sleek knot, clad in figure-skimming suits. But where Pris wore baby pink that matched the soft blush of her porcelain skin, her eyes a pale Nordic blue, her hair shining the color of fresh butter, Pamela’s olive complexion reflected the onyx black of her hair, eyes, and suit.

I took a step back. Like all the McHale sisters, I’m tall and athletic. In theory, I could snap either one of these model-thin women in half. In a physical fight, I had them licked. But this promised to be another round in the women’s months-long battle of wills, and I was hopelessly outmatched.

Pamela’s crimson mouth oozed into a smile. “Mrs. Olson—”

“Please, call me Pris.”

A heartbeat of silence.

“Pris, your assistant over there”—she waved dismissively in Dee Dee’s general direction—“was just returning Phantom to Charleston’s hutch.”

“Oh dear,” Pris gushed. “Well, those two big boys really do look alike. And I did urge Mrs. McCoy to stay with us while we gave Phantom his blowout. It’s our policy, you know. But she was far too eager to start catching up with the other breeders, so she left Phantom on his own. I’m sure she didn’t even consider the possibility that her cat would be confused for another, nearly identical cat, but that’s what policies are for!” Pris concluded, her mouth settling into a wicked little smile.

Harsh red heat roiled across Pamela’s cheeks. I took another step back. Pamela was about to blow.

Still, when she rallied enough to speak, her voice remained as flat as Iowa. “You’re absolutely correct. That’s why we have policies. Like the policy of requiring owners to groom their own animals.”

Pris raised a single shoulder. “Well. What are you gonna do?”

The phrase was as much challenge as expression of commiseration.

I held my breath, waiting for the fireworks, but they never came; the whole situation defused when my aunt Dolly sashayed up, back from her tour around the ballroom. In typical Dolly style, she wore glittering stack-heeled sandals. Her tunic-length T-shirt, featuring a tropical sunset picked out in sequins, draped over a pair of neon-orange capris. No matter the occasion, Dolly dressed with flair.

“Ladies,” she drawled, head swiveling back and forth between Pris and Pamela like she was watching a match at Wimbledon.

“Hello, Dolly,” Pris responded.

Pamela extended a hand. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

My aunt took the proffered hand and gave it two vigorous shakes. “My name is Dolly,” she said, overenunciating each word. “Just like Pris said,” she added helpfully.

The tendons in Pamela’s neck stood out. “I’m Pamela Rawlins, cocoordinator of the show.”

Dolly grinned. “Well, it’s a mighty fine cat show. Not that I’ve ever been to a cat show before. But this is terrific. I’ve never seen so much drama packed into a single room.

“That lady over there,” she said, jerking her thumb in the direction of a heavyset woman in a cobalt-blue tracksuit, “said that sometimes people poison other people’s cats.” She shivered in morbid delight.

I gasped. “Really?” I said, turning to Pamela for verification.

“Once,” she said emphatically. “That was six years ago. And the accused insists to this day she accidentally dropped those acetaminophen tablets into Betsy Blue’s bowl of kibble. Besides, she’s been permanently banned from participating in our shows.”

I was still reeling from the notion that a cat owner would poison someone else’s pet when Dolly jumped in again.

“That guy over in the corner,” she said, indicating a balding gentleman wearing an Argyle sweater-vest despite the summer heat. He glanced up, almost as though he knew we were talking about him, but then went back to methodically running a brush over the sleek coat of a caramel-colored Burmese. “He confided that one of the female judges slipped her room key under Toffee Boy”—which must have been the cat—“when she returned him to his cage.”

Pamela appeared stricken. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Ha! He said it happened last year.”

Pamela quirked her head to the side, frowning in confusion. Her eyes scanned the room, pausing on each judging ring. Her lips moved slightly as she counted them off.

“Well,” she finally said, “I assure you that I run a tight ship. There will be no such shenanigans under my watch.”

Dolly shook her head. “I hate to tell you, Ms. Pamela Rawlins, but I have a hunch that this week will be a hotbed of shenanigans. And my hunches are never wrong.”

*   *   *

“Are we ready?” Rena asked.

“I don’t know. Are we?” I countered.

Rena Hamilton had been my best friend since grade school. We made an unlikely pair. I was tall, clocking in at five foot ten inches when I slumped, dressed like the small-town girl that I was, and rarely made waves. Rena, on the other hand, was a giant personality in an elfin package. She’d toned herself down for the cat show, hoping she wouldn’t scare away the out-of-town guests: she’d removed most of her piercings, all tattoos were covered, she’d put away every piece of spiked jewelry, and the knee-high Doc Martens were resting comfortably at home. Still, she couldn’t do much to hide her Day-Glo-orange shock of hair or the gritty determination in her eyes.

In addition to the bond of friendship, we shared ownership of Trendy Tails. I ran the pet-boutique part of our shop, designing and hand making many of our wares, while Rena baked organic pet treats for our barkery and helped me with inventory, accounting, and manning the showroom.

“I’ve got the goodies and the doohickey that will let us process credit cards with your phone,” she said.

“And I’ve got the merch and the change for cash purchases.”

“Then I guess we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. All we’ll need is some hot coffee to hit the ground running in the morning.”

She paused to scan the ballroom of the North Woods Hotel, where, in a few short hours, the M-CFO show would kick off. At that point, the perimeter of the ballroom had been divided into cubbies—most of them rings in which cats would actually be judged, but a few, like ours, dedicated to cat-related vendors. The center of the floor was lined with rows of tables on which competitors had set up hutches for the show cats and a few for cats available for sale or adoption. While we watched, the cat owners and breeders were busy setting up their stations, and a dozen show volunteers were flitting about with clipboards and harried expressions.

“How have things been going here in the heart of the action?” Rena asked.

“Pamela is being a witch with a capital B. Dolly’s been working the crowd for gossip and information on the salacious underbelly of cat shows. And one of the breeders lost her cool when someone said her tabby’s scarab marking looked a little muddled.”

“Scarab?”

“That sort of triangular marking right on the top of tabbies’ heads. It’s supposed to be clearly defined.”

“Who knew?”

I laughed. “I sure didn’t. But the breeder, that woman with the leopard-print jumpsuit, about blew a gasket when the dude in the plaid jacket mentioned it.”

“The show’s very first catfight?” Rena looked at me with wide-eyed innocence.

Before I could call her on her terrible joke, a sharp “no” brought all the conversation in the North Woods Hotel Ballroom One to a sudden halt. Every head swiveled to the source of the sound—Pris Olson, standing in front of Phillip Denford, both of them smack in the middle of the ballroom.

Denford was rocking back on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back and a smug smile on his face. He was the calm in the storm of Pris’s ire. Denford looked every inch the man of leisure, his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly groomed and his loosely knotted tie and perfectly pressed chinos conveying that he was absolutely in charge but that he carried the burden with ease. Phillip Denford was the spectacularly wealthy head of the Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization and the person footing the bill for much of the week’s activities. He’d first made a fortune in business real estate and venture capitalism, and then he’d doubled down by opening the Web’s two most well-known sites for upscale pet products: the Dapper Dog and the Classy Cat. Denford was too important, both because of his money and because of his sway in the world of cat fanciers and canine aficionados, for anyone to call him out for his loathsome ways, but the word “letch” had been carried by a constant flurry of whispers ever since he’d arrived. Even as he and Pris argued, his eyes weren’t exactly glued to her face.

Pris generally respected wealth and power, and after years of marriage to the Midwest’s RV King, she knew how to deal with men who had wandering eyes and wayward hands. More important, she certainly wanted to stay in Denford’s good graces. Befriending anyone with money and connections offered Pris an opportunity to advance her own interests. But something he’d said or done had pushed her over the edge. I couldn’t begin to imagine what.

Pris leaned in to give Phillip what for. Even angry, Pris managed to be gorgeous. You could tell she was royally po’d by her expression, but her face didn’t get that mottled red color mine did when I was angry. No, Pris’s cheeks just got a little rosier. I’m not usually one to get hung up on looks, but I’ll admit I resented her unfaltering beauty just a bit.

After that initial outburst, I couldn’t hear what Pris was saying, but she continued to stab at Phillip’s chest with her finger.

“Poor Pris,” I muttered.

Rena Hamilton twitched her nose. “What do you mean ‘Poor Pris’?” Her contempt for Pris Olson dripped like venom from her every word. “Pris doesn’t need your sympathy, Izzy. She’s a rich, beautiful, successful queen bee of the Methodist Ladies’ Auxiliary . . .”

“. . . hates her husband, has recently lost a major chunk of her fortune, and is now enduring Phillip Denford’s ogling.”

Rena snorted. “First, it’s Hal Olson’s own fault he lost so much money. He sank way too much cash into the Badger Lake condos.”

It was true. Hal had purchased a huge plot of land on the shores of Badger Lake and had begun building luxury condos for Merryville’s many vacationers. It was an expensive proposition, but he’d planned to pay off the builders with income from the first few sales. Then, however, he ran afoul of the Department of Natural Resources because his building threatened the habitat of some endangered burrowing owls. As a result, he couldn’t sell the condos yet, and the builders were starting to slap him with mechanics’ liens. If he didn’t reach some settlement with the DNR or start selling other assets, he’d risk his builders foreclosing on the property altogether.

I hummed my assent. “But it’s not his fault that that new RV lot opened up down near the Cities, cutting into his business. And even if Hal’s financial woes are his own fault, Pris is the one who’s paying for them. She’s been working extra shifts at Prissy’s Pretty Pets. I mean actually working, ruining her manicures with doggy shampoo and getting clawed when the cats object to having their nails trimmed.”

“Cry me a river.”

“She’s started selling scented candles and dietary supplements to the other ladies who live out in Quail Run. Dru told me she even had some sort of jewelry party. Mix-and-match charm bracelets of some sort.”

“And what’s the matter with hustling a little to bring home the bacon?” Rena sniffed as she straightened a display of custom-embroidered collars. Rena had been hustling to feed herself and her alcoholic father since she was fifteen.

“Nothing. Nothing at all. Except I hear no one is buying. All those so-called friends of hers are letting her go through her whole spiel about enhanced metabolism or the importance of aromatherapy or whatever, and then they smile, say no, and show her the door. It must be so embarrassing for her.”

Unmoved, Rena brushed a smudge of powdered sugar off her sleeve. Apparently, she’d had doughnuts for breakfast. “Why do you care? Pris is generally horrible to you. Maybe this is just a little karma.”

I shrugged. “I just feel sorry for her.”

“You know that she would kill you if you said that to her.” Rena laughed.

I chuckled. “Oh yes. I know.”

We turned back to see whether Denford and Pris were still bickering. Sure enough, Pris had managed to inch forward until her face was so close to Denford’s that they almost seemed intimate.

I glanced around the room. Off by the sixth judging ring, Phillip’s wife stood next to a slouchy, surly young man and watched the drama unfold. Marsha was a lovely woman, with long auburn hair, luscious curves, and eyes as blue as a winter sky, but she was wifty. Her voice trailed off at the end of every sentence, as though her thoughts were as ephemeral as dandelion fluff. She watched Phillip and Pris with her perpetual half smile on her face. Whatever transpired between her husband and the gorgeous blonde, Marsha remained unruffled.

“Who’s the guy next to Marsha Denford? She’s practically falling on top of him,” I asked Rena.

She craned her head to see over all the kennels and snorted. “Marsha may be slightly inebriated. I think she’d hang on to anyone in her orbit, but that happens to be the younger Denford, Phillip’s son by his first wife. His name is Peter.”

“What’s his story? Why on earth is he here?”

“He’s an artist,” Rena scoffed—a strange reaction since Rena’s girlfriend, Jolly, was a jeweler and I, too, considered myself something of an artist when I designed my clothes for critters.

I gave Peter a closer look: a paper cup of coffee that probably cost him four dollars, a collarless linen shirt, well-worn cargo pants, Teva-like sandals, a fringed scarf looped around his neck, and a shock of red-gold hair with that messy look that can be achieved only with an array of expensive styling products.

So he was that kind of artist. The kind of artist who sneered a lot.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what he was doing as he watched Pris and his dad squabble: he was sneering.

“As to why he’s here,” Rena continued, “I understand that he doesn’t have many resources of his own. If you want to eat from the gravy train, you apparently have to follow it all around the Upper Midwest.”

“Quite a family,” I muttered.

“Which family?” The familiar deep voice behind me made me go a little gooey inside. “Yours? What have they been up to now?” Jack Collins, my boyfriend, was the only child of conventional parents. He understood crazy—he was a cop. But the affable sniping of the McHale sisters, my mother’s stoic effort to act like we were all angels, and my aunt Dolly’s complete lack of self-control bemused him.

“Actually, the Denfords,” I said as I turned to greet him. He was holding a giant bouquet of balloons in his giant fist, all bright green and baby blue—the Trendy Tails colors. I gasped.

He tilted his close-cropped blond head, his eyes alight with smug self-satisfaction, and offered the ribbons to me. “I thought they’d give your table some height, make sure people can see you from clear across the room.”

“Brilliant! They’re perfect.” I dipped my chin and looked up at him through my lashes. “And so are you,” I said softly, for his ears alone.

“Most girls would hold out for diamonds before they dished out that kind of praise. If I’d known a handful of balloons would do the trick, I would have been bringing them to your doorstep every day.”

As I took the balloons, I realized they were actually separated into two bouquets, each attached to a solid weight that would keep them on our table. I handed one of them off to Rena for the far end of the table and placed mine right in the middle of a display of silk-flower hair accessories.

I wrapped my arms around Jack in an impulsive hug, and he leaned in to brush a kiss across my cheek. We both pulled back with blushes starting to creep up our faces. We’d been dating for several months, but we were taking it slowly. My ill-fated engagement to my high school sweetheart had left me love-shy, and Jack honored that. Perhaps even more important, public displays of affection meant that, if the relationship went south, it would do so publicly, and after my debacle with Casey Alter, another public breakup was the last thing I wanted.

Jack cleared his throat as he put a few more inches of distance between us. “The Denfords, huh? From what little I’ve seen, they’re proof that money can’t ward off the crazies. Got a call down to the Silent Woman last night that that Peter kid was causing a ruckus. Kept calling himself a poor little rich boy and wouldn’t pay his tab. Since the patrol guys were all out on more urgent calls, I decided to handle the call myself.”

“Did you arrest him?”

“No.”

“Really? That seems so unlike you.” Jack had little patience for drunken foolishness, and I would have expected him to haul young Peter out by the ear and toss him in the drunk tank.

He shrugged. “By the time I got there, he’d called his dad’s assistant to bail him out, pay his tab, and give him a ride home.”

“Still doesn’t sound like you, Mr. Law and Order,” I teased. “Wouldn’t expect you to let a rabble-rouser walk just because he had a ride home.”

He looked down and stubbed his toe into the low-pile carpet. “It was a personal favor.”

I couldn’t imagine that Jack Collins and Peter Denford had ever crossed paths, so Jack’s favor must have been for the rescuer, Phillip Denford’s assistant. Curious.

A resounding “You!” from the center of the ballroom signaled that Phillip and Pris were still going at it. “That,” I said, jerking my head in their direction, “is what got us talking about the Denfords.”

“What’s the fight about?” Jack asked.

“Don’t know,” Rena answered.

As we rubbernecked, a tiny wisp of a woman darted into the center of the fight. She had an abundance of curly blond hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun and a cherub’s face. She wore a T-shirt with the Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization logo across the front and a pair of low-slung skinny jeans.

She rested a hand on Phillip’s arm and the other on Pris’s arm, looking back and forth between the two with an earnest expression.

“Who’s that?” Rena asked.

“Marigold Aames,” Jack and I said simultaneously.

I shot him a surprised look, but he just shrugged.

“And she is. . .?” Rena continued.

“She’s Phillip’s assistant. Pamela Rawlins is technically in charge of this shindig, but Marigold has done most of the heavy lifting. Pamela is in charge of the cat show, but Marigold has handled the extravaganza: the closing-night masquerade, the flowers and luncheons, the vendor space.”

We all watched as Marigold shifted both hands to Pris’s arm and guided her toward the door—toward us. At first Marigold’s head nodded softly as Pris continued to gesticulate. Finally, Marigold said something, and Pris pulled her arm away. As Pris stalked toward us, Marigold took two skipping steps to every one of Pris’s strides. It looked like Marigold was still trying to smooth the waters, but Pris’s face was set in rigid determination. Just as the two got to our table, Marigold stopped, her shoulders slumped, while Pris continued out the door without a word.

Marigold ran a hand over her face and visibly shook off the tension of the moment. Then she caught sight of our little gaggle, and an enormous smile wreathed her face. “Jack!”

“Hi, Mari,” he responded with a big grin.

She launched herself at him, and he caught her up in a big bear hug. Rena and I exchanged questioning looks.

“Izzy, Rena, this is Mari Aames. We went to college together at UMD.”

“We were . . . great friends,” Mari added, a faint splash of color on her cheeks.

My mind was whirling. Marigold had all but announced that she and Jack had been romantically involved. I knew that Jack had dated a girl named Jenny in college. They’d actually been engaged for a while. But it had never occurred to me that he might have had other significant relationships. He’d never mentioned Mari. Why had he never mentioned Mari?

And Mari must have been the person who fetched Peter at the Silent Woman, on whose behalf Jack dropped his by-the-book persona to let Peter off with a warning. A gnawing sense of jealousy began clawing its way through my gut. I know it was mostly my fault, but when Jack and I had hugged just a few minutes before, it was self-conscious and hesitant, but he hugged Mari in front of God and everyone, swinging her up off the floor in his exuberance.

It didn’t help that, if you squinted, Marigold Aames looked an awful lot like Rachel, the perky nutritionist my longtime fiancé had run off with.

“Nice to meet you,” Rena said, breaking the awkward silence. “And thanks for breaking up whatever was going on over there.”

Eyebrows raised, Rena couldn’t have been any more transparent in her effort to fish some information from Mari.

“Oh, that,” Mari responded with a dismissive wave. “Things are always tense right before a show starts. Now, I hate to be rude, but I have to skedaddle. There’s still so much to do before tomorrow morning. But you,” she said, pointing a waggling finger in Jack’s direction, “you have to let me buy you lunch or dinner before I leave town.”

Jack shot me a sidelong glance. “Sure. Absolutely.”

As Marigold scampered off, my excitement for the cat show diminished considerably. Nothing good could come from this, I thought. Nothing good.

CHAPTER

Knowing how busy I would be for the rest of the week, I decided to have dinner with my sisters, Lucy and Dru, that night. We met at the Koi Pond, a surprisingly authentic Chinese restaurant within walking distance of my house.

When we’re together, the McHale sisters are quite a sight, so close in age and appearance, our mother calls us her Irish triplets. We’re all tall, but not equally so. Lucy, the baby, is five foot nine, I’m five foot ten, and Dru, the eldest, is five foot eleven. Perfect stair steps, each with long black hair and eyes the color of new spring leaves.

But despite our physical similarities, our temperaments couldn’t be further apart. Growing up, we called Dru “Dru the Shrew.” She’s not really a shrew at all, but she was the tattletale in the family, always strictly abiding by the rules and crying foul when one of us strayed from the straight and narrow. She’d grown into a tense woman, still scrupulously following rules as an accountant and still refusing to sugarcoat anything.

My younger sister, Lucy, earned the moniker “Lucky Lucy.” Everything she did ultimately turned in her favor. She never got caught sneaking out to go to postcurfew parties, and she always managed to convince our parents that the degenerate losers she chose to date were, in fact, good and honest boys. As an adult, she’d calmed her wild ways and started dating more respectable boys. Specifically, she’d been dating Xander Stephens—an entrepreneur and all-around good guy. Xander’s thin frame towered above Lucy, and he was silent in the face of Lucy’s nonstop sarcastic color commentary. They seemed to fit perfectly, her yin to his yang. But, still, Lucy’s high spirits were not completely gone: she’d confessed to skinny-dipping in Lake Superior on a recent girls’ trip to Duluth, the only one of her circle of friends willing to take the actual plunge.

“How are you holding up?” Dru asked as we slid into the booth. “You’re going to be spread pretty thin these next few days.”

“I’m okay. Wanda”—our teenaged assistant—“will hold down the store, and Rena’s covering the booth at the show. I’m a floater, and I’ll be walking around the show passing out cards and making connections.”

Lucy laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day when Dizzy Izzy McHale would be the face of a company.” Kids at school had started calling me Dizzy Izzy after I spun around too many times on the playground and upchucked on Sean Tucker, but my family had picked up the nickname and used it to tease me about being a little flaky.

“I’m not Dizzy Izzy anymore, Lucy. Now I’m Busy Izzy. Trendy Tails is in the black, even after Rena and I take a small salary for ourselves. We’re not rolling in dough, but getting the word out about our store through this cat show will raise our profile considerably.”

“I don’t know,” Dru said, her pessimistic side showing. She set her napkin in her lap and picked up her fork, turning it over and over in her hand the way some people roll coins to soothe themselves. “If you start getting too many orders, how will you fulfill them? You can only sew for so many hours in a day.”

I raised my hands in surrender. “Enough. My business is fine, and it’s my business. You two are just going to have to trust me that I can handle this. Aunt Dolly does.”

“For a while Aunt Dolly believed the checkout girl at the Rainbow was an alien,” Lucy quipped.

I sighed. “That was only because she heard the girl speaking Hungarian on the phone, and she realized her mistake almost right away. I know that Aunt Dolly is eccentric and sometimes a bit naive, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She believed in me enough to invest in the company, and you know how frugal she is.”

“Speaking of which,” Dru said, “have you paid her back yet?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but we have a repayment plan and I haven’t missed a single payment. By this time next year, Dolly will have recovered her investment plus a little extra in lieu of interest.”

At that point, our server came to take our orders. I opted for a Szechuan eggplant while both Lucy and Dru ordered the house special: a stir-fried beef dish covered with the most delicious sauce known to man.

“Okay, I don’t want to talk about Trendy Tails anymore,” Lucy said. “Boring.”

“Well, what would you like to discuss, Lucinda?” Dru replied in her most schoolmarmish tone.

“Boys!”

“Ugh.” Dru let her fork drop to the table.

“Yes, sister, I want to talk about boys. Like the boy I saw you having coffee with at Joe Time yesterday.” My ears perked up. This was news to me.

Dru blushed. “That was Donovan. He works at the credit union. It was just coffee.”

“This time,” Lucy said. “But what about when Xander saw you with him at Red, White and Bleu?”

If it were possible, Dru’s hair would have been blushing by this point. Personally, I was stunned. I couldn’t remember the last time my uptight sister had dated.

“Fess up,” I said.

Dru closed her eyes and exhaled sharply. “Very well. I guess Merryville’s too small to be discreet. Donovan and I have been seeing each other about a month now.”

“A month?” Lucy and I cried in unison.

“Yes. Like I said, we were trying to be discreet. He’s a nice man, goes to church regularly, has a quiet sense of humor . . . and a six-year-old daughter named Naomi.”

The server dropped our egg rolls at the table, and we all took a few minutes to enjoy the sweet and salt of the roll and its sauce while we let this bit of information sink in.

“A daughter,” I finally said. “That’s heavy.”

Dru nodded. “I know. At first I thought it would be a deal breaker. But I’ve met Naomi, and she’s just like her dad. Only shorter and with more hair.” We all chuckled, breaking the tension. “Seriously, she’s a gem. She seems to be okay with me hanging around now and then, and Donovan and I aren’t serious yet.”

Lucy pounced. “Yet?”

“Yet. And maybe we never will be. But for now I’m enjoying being an honorary member of this little family.”

“I think that’s great,” I said. “For what it’s worth, if you do get serious, you’d make a really good mom.”

Lucy moaned. “That child will need her aunt Lucy to liven up her life a little. You’ll certainly keep her safe and well loved, but a kid’s got to have a little adventure in her life.”

Dru held up a hand. “No Aunt Lucy yet. Like I said, Donovan and I aren’t serious yet.”

“Yet,” Lucy repeated.

Desperate to deflect the attention away from herself, Dru turned to me with wide eyes. “How about you and Jack Collins? Is that serious?”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for the Pet Boutique Mysteries

“Knox has created a warm, funny, flawed, but completely endearing sleuth in Izzy McHale.”—New York Times bestselling author Miranda James

“Annie Knox dazzles!”—National Bestselling Author Melissa Bourbon

“Everything you could hope for in a good cozy.”—Crimespree Magazine

“A witty whodunit...one that fans of corpses and canines, felonies and felines, will lap up.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch

"[A]n impressive start to a new series.”—MyShelf.com

 

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