Certain that Piper is innocent, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, Daphne sets out to clear her sister’s name—and find Axis, Steve’s prize-winning chocolate Labrador, who went missing the night of Steve’s death. Aided by Socrates, her taciturn basset hound, and a hyperactive one-eared Chihuahua named Artie, Daphne quickly runs afoul of Detective Jonathan Black, a handsome and enigmatic newcomer to town, who has no appreciation for Daphne’s unorthodox sleuthing.
Can a free-spirited pet sitter, armed only with a Ph.D. in Philosophy and her two incompatible dogs, find the real killer before she becomes the next victim?
Includes recipes for homemade dog treats!
“When murder is unleashed in the idyllic town of Sylvan Creek, it’s up to spunky pet sitter Daphne and her darling duo of misfit mutts to catch the killer. A doggone charming read from start to finish!” —Cleo Coyle, New York Times bestselling author
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Death by Chocolate Lab
By Bethany Blake
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Bethany Blake
All rights reserved.
I was walking three powerful rottweilers, but I was pretty sure they weren't really to blame for my being pulled down the street like a drunken water-skier behind an erratic boat.
No, the dog at fault was a three-pound, one-eared Chihuahua with bulging eyes and a severe overbite — which he was applying, every few steps, to the bigger dogs' hind legs.
"Artie, enough," I chided him, awkwardly bending to scoop up the troublemaker. Immediately, the dogs ahead of me settled down. Straightening, I tucked Artie into a tote bag that advertised my business, Daphne Templeton's Lucky Paws Pet Sitting, and reminded him yet again, "Who's going to adopt you if you always misbehave in public?"
Artie, the most impudent dog I'd ever fostered, didn't respond. He merely poked his always trembling head out of the canvas tote, his brown eyes gleaming, like he'd been scheming for a ride all along.
"I hate to tell you, but nobody is going to adopt Artie," my sister, Piper, noted, catching up to us. She was walking with my basset hound sidekick, Socrates, who considered himself above group walks and never hurried. He shambled along at Piper's side, his droopy, solemn eyes fixed on something in the distance. He might've been interested in the dark clouds gathering ahead — a storm was definitely brewing — but I suspected that his real focus was inward. Socrates wasn't the type of dog who obsessed about where his next treat was coming from. I was convinced that he dealt with more profound issues.
"You have to admit, the Chihuahua is a mess," Piper added, glancing down at Artie, who had a long string of drool trailing from his mouth. His overbite was really bad. A shelf of tiny, crooked teeth completely obscured his weak chin. "A big, hot, steaming mess!"
"That's not exactly medical terminology, Dr. Templeton," I said. "I don't think they taught you that in veterinary school."
Piper, who wore her lab coat, because she needed to return to her practice after the walk, merely shrugged. "I just call 'em like I see them."
She was probably right, but I refused to give up on the prospect of a happy ending for Artie's so far sad story of abandonment by no fewer than three owners. Nobody could even say how he'd lost his ear. Shouldn't someone have known that?
I looked sideways at Piper. "We could ..."
I'd known Piper wouldn't agree to let Artie stay with us. She — probably wisely — kept a strict limit on the number of strays and rescues I brought home at any given time, and allowed me to have only one permanent furry family member. Socrates. Since she let me live rent free in her beautifully restored 1860s farmhouse, I couldn't really argue.
I gave Artie an apologetic look, promising, "Somebody will give you a real home." Then I tightened my grip on the three leather leads in my hand. We were approaching a corner, and while traffic in the village of Sylvan Creek, Pennsylvania — a quaint lakeside community in the heart of the Pocono Mountains — wasn't exactly heavy this hot, sticky August evening, I needed to make sure the bigger dogs were returned safely to their owner, Virginia Lockhart. Virginia, a particularly aggressive attorney, would no doubt sue me for the few things I had and would shut down Lucky Paws if one of her prize animals got so much as a scratch. Macduff, Iago, and Hamlet were champion agility dogs, worth thousands of dollars each, and I carried minimal insurance.
Shaking off my concerns, I smiled down at Artie again. "He's so ugly, he's cute, don't you think?"
"I think he's adorable," someone said in a cheerful, heavily accented feminine voice.
Piper and Socrates stopped walking, and I reined in the rottweilers, putting them in a sit.
"Hey, Giulia," I said, turning to see Giulia Alberti watching us from the doorway of her shop, Espresso Pronto, the best place to get coffee in Sylvan Creek. Giulia was a native of La Spezia, Italy, and imported almost everything she sold in her Tuscan-inspired café.
I nearly started drooling, thinking about the almond-and-lemon, white chocolate–dipped biscotti she kept in a glass jar on the marble counter.
Giulia, meanwhile, was drawn to something — or someone — else.
"Who is this sweet little creature?" she asked, smiling as she came out to join us on the sidewalk. She first bent over to set down a big bowl of water for the rottweilers, who gave her a grateful look before jostling to lap it up noisily. Then she allowed Artie to sniff her long, delicate fingers, one of which was conspicuously bare.
Would she and hotheaded banker Christian Clarke ever really tie the knot?
I couldn't ask, although everybody in Sylvan Creek wanted to know the answer to that question. Especially a waiting list of single guys.
Artie definitely seemed smitten with Giulia, too. He wriggled in delight just to be in her presence.
"You are quite the little man, aren't you?" Giulia teased, chuckling and tickling Artie's recessive chin. "Do you want a drink, too?"
Artie didn't seem parched. In fact, his drool problem worsened.
Typical man, little or not.
I glanced down at Socrates, who yawned and shook his large, wrinkled head, as if base attraction — like walking in dog packs — was also beneath him. And he certainly wasn't going to drink from a communal bowl.
Then I gave Piper a smug look that said, "See? Somebody already thinks Artie's cute!"
But my sister didn't meet my gaze. She was frowning at Giulia, who looked gorgeous, even though she was wearing a baker's apron over a basic black T-shirt and had her long dark hair pulled into a simple ponytail. Plain but large silver hoops dangled from her ears.
I had a sneaking suspicion that Piper was wondering if the rumors about her ex-boyfriend, egomaniacal dog trainer Steve Beamus, and Giulia were true. According to the town's gossip mill, Steve and Giulia had been linked romantically at one point. Maybe even while Steve had been seeing Piper.
As if realizing that she was being borderline rude, Piper finally spoke up. "Are you all set for tomorrow, Giulia? Do you need anything from me?"
"No, no," she assured my sister, shaking her head. She looked up from petting Artie. "I will set up tonight and will bring a generator for the truck. I do not even need your power." She cocked her head, so her earrings swung. "Do you think anyone will want hot drinks? I plan to serve freshly made lemonade with mint, iced coffee with sweet cream and sugar — and, of course, lots of cold, fresh water for the dogs."
"What's going on?" I asked, looking between the two women. "What am I missing?"
"Giulia, like some other local merchants, has agreed to be a vendor at this weekend's event," Piper said. "People and pets will need to eat and drink. Both days will be long and, most likely, hot."
My continued cluelessness must have been obvious. Piper lowered her wire-rimmed glasses, the better to look askance at me. "Did you really forget that we're hosting the agility trial at Winding Hill this weekend? It's a pretty big deal. Handlers are coming in from as far as Philadelphia!"
I had totally forgotten that Piper had offered a local agility club the use of her farm for a trial. "Um, of course I remembered that," I fibbed.
She clearly didn't believe me. She shook her head and sighed. "How do you run a business? Do you even have a calendar?"
"Yes, I have one of those!" I informed her.
I really did. It was dated 2011, and it was somewhere on the floor of the 1975 VW bus that served as my office, probably buried under a lot of burrito wrappers. I had a slight addiction to the vegetarian special at a cute little hole-in-the-wall shop called Burrito Casita.
"What is this agility, anyway?" Giulia asked, crossing her arms. "Something different from a dog show? Because I am looking forward to seeing puppies with fancy hairdos."
Artie seemed bereft over the loss of Giulia's attention, and the rottweilers were getting restless, so I piped up, the better to keep things short. My scientifically minded sister tended toward long-winded, technical explanations. "It's like an obstacle course competition for animals," I explained. "Handlers guide their dogs through tunnels, over fences, and across seesaws and high boards. Dogs that complete the courses quickly and without messing up win prizes. No fancy haircuts required, I'm afraid."
"It's not that simple," Piper said, correcting me. Of course, she knew quite a bit about the sport, having dated Steve, who taught classes in agility at his nationally known Blue Ribbon K9 Academy. "The courses are very complex, and the stakes can be surprisingly high. Dogs that advance to the national level can take home prizes of up to ten thousand dollars. And, of course, there are bragging rights for handlers whose animals win. Those are probably more important than ribbons, trophies, or even purses."
Giulia didn't seem to know what to make of that. Maybe dog sports and dog shows weren't such a big deal in Italy. Or, although her English was pretty good, maybe she didn't understand the dual meaning of purses and thought Piper was talking about handbags.
If she was skeptical about the value of competition itself on a metaphysical level, I had to agree. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, "When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you."
Amen to that.
Or maybe I was just too lazy for sports, dog or otherwise.
I glanced at my type A sibling, wondering yet again how sisters — even ones who were nearly six years apart — could be so different.
Piper and I were both doctors, but she made tons of money treating animals, while my Ph.D. in philosophy had paid off in enlightened thought, not cash. Which was fine with me.
Aside from both of us having slight frames, Piper and I looked different, too.
My older sister had aquiline features and stick-straight chestnut hair, which she usually pulled back in a tidy bun. Although she wasn't even forty, when not in her lab coat, she dressed like a schoolmarm in sweater sets and "slacks." And her intelligent brown eyes always seemed to be judging the world, which usually failed to meet her standards.
I, meanwhile, had long, thick, uncontrollably curly dirty-blond hair, which I preferred to let run wild. Sweater sets made me shudder. I liked to be comfortable in worn jeans and T-shirts that advertised a local rescue or my business. My eyes were a weird shade of greenish gray, and I was pretty sure if my sister had been blessed with the freckles scattered around my small, slightly upturned nose, she would've hired a plastic surgeon to arrange them in neater rows.
"Why are you staring at me?" Piper asked, so I realized I'd been studying her for too long. She nodded toward the rottweilers, who were lying down, post drink, but obviously restless. "Those guys are getting antsy, and I need to get back to my practice." The wind picked up, and she looked at the sky, her brow furrowing with concern. "We'd better keep moving."
"Yeah, I don't need more wet-dog smell in my van," I agreed, giving the rotties the go-ahead to stand up. I turned to Giulia. "I hope you bring biscotti tomorrow. And some of those Italian sodas!"
"Oh, I forgot to mention the sodas — which will be there," she said, grinning and offering Artie one last tickle. He nearly fell out of the tote, and I made a mental note to pester Giulia about adopting him. Nearly every business in the pet-friendly town of Sylvan Creek had a shop dog or cat, and Artie would make a great ambassador. Except for the drooling, of course. Then Giulia bent to pat Socrates on the head, but he gave her such a dead-level, discouraging stare that she thought the better of it and straightened, asking Piper and me, "Can I get you some espresso to go?" She glanced at the sky. "Or perhaps you would like to wait out the storm inside, over some gelato? I made dark chocolate today."
I really wanted some of Giulia's rich, authentic Italian version of ice cream, but I needed to return the rottweilers. "Some other time," I promised. "Thanks for the offer, though. And for the bowl of water."
Giulia smiled at my sister. "Piper?"
"No, I have to go, too," she said. Her tone was polite, but less than enthusiastic. "Thanks, though."
"Any time, bellas," Giulia said. She turned to go back into her little nook of a store, which looked very inviting, with its terracotta-colored walls and its dark wooden tables clustered on a rustic stone floor. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled and waggled her red-tipped fingers. "Ciao!"
"Ciao," Piper said glumly.
"You should never say that word again," I suggested as our little party of pets and people resumed making its way down Market Street, the main thoroughfare through town. I was a small-town girl at heart, and I never got tired of looking at the historic architecture. Sylvan Creek was especially pretty at the height of summer. Nearly every storefront boasted planters and hanging baskets that overflowed with brightly colored flowers. As Piper, the dogs, and I strolled under the balcony of the Sylvan Creek Inn, which dated back to the early 1800s, the hotel's gas lamps flickered on. "'Ciao' just doesn't sound right coming from you," I added. "You're not a 'ciao' kind of girl."
Piper didn't reply. I suspected she knew that I was right.
All at once, Sylvan Creek's signature antique streetlamps flickered to life, too. It was getting that gloomy. Several shops also had their lights on, including two of my favorite haunts: a pet store called Fetch! which stocked locally made organic treats and unusual toys, and a tiny specialty bookstore called the Philosopher's Tome, which had lots of cozy nooks where a person who should have been drumming up clientele for a pet-sitting business could get lost reading about everything from Aristotle to Zeno.
The stores were owned by Tom and Tessie Flinchbaugh, a middle-aged married couple. Given that I was usually the only customer in Tom's bookshop, I was pretty sure Tessie's busy pet emporium kept her husband's store afloat.
As we passed by the Philosopher's Tome, I saw Tom sitting on a worn, overstuffed velvet-covered chair in a turret that was one of my favorite spots in the converted Victorian house. When he saw us passing by, he rose, shoved up one of the windows with effort, and leaned out. "I got a new ... meaning old ... copy of Seneca's Letters from a Stoic," he informed me. The wind rumpled his graying hair and made his rosy cheeks even pinker. "Stop by when you want to check it out."
I loved that Tom never made me buy anything. When he said "check it out," he wasn't suggesting that I just look at the volume. He frequently let me borrow books, like he was running a library. In return, I always volunteered to watch his and Tessie's ancient poodle, Marzipan, for free. But the truth was, the Flinchbaughs didn't go out much and had never vacationed, that I knew of.
"Thanks, Tom," I said. "I'll be in."
"Don't forget that Marzipan has an appointment with me Monday," Piper added.
Tom didn't reply. He just nodded, hurrying to close the window against the coming storm. In the distance, the first streak of lightning crossed the sky. Socrates and Artie seemed unconcerned — well, Artie shivered constantly, so it was hard to tell if he was nervous — but big, supposedly tough Macduff, Hamlet, and Iago flinched.
If any of the trio — especially the pack leader, Macduff — ever really bolted, I'd be in serious trouble, so I forced myself to stay calm. Animals always fed on human emotions. And there really was no reason to panic. My van was half a block away. At least, I was pretty sure I'd parked my distinctive, flower power–pink VW in a space obscured by a huge, shiny green pickup truck.
"Will Tessie be selling dog stuff at the trial?" I asked, waving to the proprietor of Fetch! who was kneeling in the display window, tying a cheerful summery bandanna around the neck of the shop's mascot, a life-size plush Irish wolfhound called Shamrock. Although I didn't think Tessie Flinchbaugh was more than fifty, like her husband, she appeared older. She was stout, with silver-streaked hair, and had a penchant for wearing shirts that featured seasonal embroidery. She had sunflowers on that day. I saw them when she waved back at us. As Piper and I moved past the store, I returned my attention to my sister. "You said there are other vendors coming. And it seems like dog people would like her high-end merchandise."
Excerpted from Death by Chocolate Lab by Bethany Blake. Copyright © 2017 Bethany Blake. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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