When her Aunt Peg lands a gig as judge at a Kentucky dog show, Melanie Travis welcomes the opportunity for a road trip. Once there, Aunt Peg reconnects with an old friend, Ellie Gates Wanamaker, a former Standard Poodle exhibitor and a member of a well-heeled Kentucky family. Miss Ellie has been out of the dog show world for more than a decade, but when Melanie invites her to spectate at the Louisville Kennel Club dog show, she’s eager to accompany her.
Miss Ellie’s presence at the expo center, however, provokes mixed reactions from exhibitors she hasn’t seen in years, including some outright animosity. The following day Melanie learns that Miss Ellie has suffered a fatal accident while exercising her dogs. Aunt Peg, however, suspects foul play. Wishing to avoid any scandal, Miss Ellie’s pedigreed family prefers to let sleeping dogs lie, but as Melanie begins to sniff around, she discovers Miss Ellie had many secrets, both in the dog show world and amongst her Kentucky kin . . .
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Live and Let Growl
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
I was moving fast.
The ground below me was little more than a blur. Scenery flew by with astonishing speed. I was running....
No, not running ... riding. I was on the back of a horse. I could feel the smooth motion of the muscular body beneath me. I could hear the creak of the leather saddle, and the steady, rhythmic sound of hoofbeats striking the turf.
Their pounding cadence pulsed through me. It drew me in and made me one with the motion. It propelled me onward, as if this heady race was the only thing in the world that mattered.
Where was I? I wondered. What was happening? Was I racing toward something — or was I running away?
I had no answers. All I knew was that I could feel the sharp bite of the wind on my face and a sensation of freedom humming deep inside my bones.
The feeling was heavenly.
It was addictive.
One thing I was sure of — I wanted more.
All at once a pale mist rose on the path ahead of us. Its silvery tendrils lifted and swirled, obscuring all view of what was to come. I found myself leaning forward in the saddle. I gazed in vain between the tips of two dark, pointed ears.
I could see nothing. The vista before me was still blank ... and suddenly forbidding. In the space of a second, the breakneck speed at which we were traveling lost its appeal.
Frantically I reached for reins, but couldn't find them. My fingers felt thick and stiff. Useless. I screamed into the wind. I told the horse to stop but my words had no effect.
Then the mists shifted and drew apart and I saw that behind them lay only darkness. A void of nothingness. It looked as though my steed and I were racing toward the edge of the world.
Abruptly my stomach plummeted as the ground disappeared from beneath us. My hands flew upward, groping in the air, grasping desperately for purchase that wasn't there. My heart pounded with the sudden knowledge that I couldn't save myself. And then I was falling, helpless as I plunged downward and tumbled into the unknown below ...
I awoke with a gasp and bolted upright in bed.
My heart was beating wildly in my chest. Mouth open, I was desperate for air. Fire clawed at my lungs. My insides still churned with the sensation of falling. Though my eyes were open wide I couldn't see a thing. Everything around me was black: inky and impenetrable.
I still had no idea where I was.
Clutching the bedcovers in frantic fingers, I swiveled my head from side to side. A moment later, my gaze alighted on the amber numbers of the bedside clock. Three-oh-two, it read.
Slowly my mind processed the number. With effort I made the connection to what it meant. Compared to my recent speed, I felt dull and sluggish as I worked to reorient myself. I gulped in a breath of cool air and shifted my shoulders, trying to ease their tension.
There was no horse. There was no wind. There was no yawning crater waiting to suck me down into its gruesome depths.
I'd been having a nightmare. That was all.
I gazed around again. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness now. I could see the familiar bedroom surrounding me. I could feel the slight dip in the mattress caused by the weight of my husband, Sam, who was sound asleep beside me.
Relief washed though me and I blew out a long breath. I was safe. I was home in my own house, with my husband, my two sons, and my six dogs.
I heard a soft creak and turned to see the bedroom door nudged slightly ajar by a long black muzzle. My Standard Poodle, Faith, the dog who understood everything about me and who knew my thoughts almost before I did, was standing silently in the doorway.
Faith always sleeps on my older son, Davey's, bed. But now in the middle of the night, something had called her to me. The big Poodle was so attuned to my emotions that she had sensed something was amiss. As I glanced in her direction, Faith tipped her head to one side inquiringly. Even in the murky darkness, I could see the gentle gleam in her eye.
As our gazes met, Faith padded silently across the room. She stepped beside the bed and pressed her nose into my hand, offering her own special brand of comfort. As the Poodle's warm breath filled my palm, I finally felt my heart rate begin to slow. I cupped Faith's muzzle between my fingers and rubbed my thumb over her lips and cheek.
"It's all right, sweetie," I said softly. "You can go back to sleep."
Faith acknowledged the comment with a low swish of her tail but she didn't look convinced.
"Really," I told her. "Everything is fine. It was just a dream."
Faith lifted one front paw delicately and placed it on the bed in silent inquiry. I glanced over my shoulder at Sam. Covers pulled up to his chin, head burrowed deep in his pillow, he was too deeply asleep to realize that his sleeping arrangement was about to become even cozier.
I scootched over toward Sam and patted the space beside me. "Come on up," I whispered. "There's plenty of room."
Faith leapt up lightly. She aligned her body next to mine, lay down on the quilt, and pressed in close. As I settled down beside her, the Poodle's warmth enveloped me.
I closed my eyes and finally slept.
* * *
"I had the strangest dream last night," I said the next evening.
The comment was delivered to a full house. It was our son, Kevin's third birthday. In honor of the occasion, I had invited some of our relatives to dinner.
In most families a gathering like that would lead to convivial celebration. Not mine, however. My relatives are equally as likely to set the house ablaze as they are to coexist in peace. There's nothing boring about the extended Travis/Turnbull clan, especially when my provocative and ever-entertaining Aunt Peg is part of the assembly.
So far we'd managed to make our way through most of the meal without incident. Minutes earlier, Kevin's birthday cake, alight with festive candles, had been presented to the room with great fanfare. Kev had shrieked and clapped his hands, bouncing up and down in his seat with glee when it appeared.
My younger son was a little hazy about what the concept of three years meant, but he knew all about chocolate cake. When I set the dessert down in front of him, Kev's first impulse was to reach for it with both hands. Luckily his older brother, Davey — a gangly twelve-year-old, teetering on the cusp between childhood and adolescence — was there to quickly intercede. Cupping Kevin's small hands in his own much larger ones, Davey also help his little brother blow out the candles.
The layer cake was cut and served and everyone dug in happily. If I were to be honest I would admit that most of the evening's success was undoubtedly due to Sam's calming influence. When it comes to my relatives, my husband is smart enough and affable enough not to sweat the small stuff. Things that cause me to roll my eyes and rail about the general state of insanity just make him shrug his shoulders and chuckle under his breath.
Lucky man. I wish I knew how he did it.
Sam was seated at the head of the table. On his right was my Aunt Peg. Now in the middle of her seventh decade, Margaret Turnbull is living proof that age is merely a state of mind. The woman possesses more than enough energy, ambition, and wit to run circles around me effortlessly. Unfortunately it's a circumstance she's not above exploiting to further her own ends. On the other hand, if it weren't for Aunt Peg I would never have discovered the intriguing appeal of the dog show world. Nor would I have Faith, or the other five Standard Poodles that currently grace and enrich our lives.
Completing the group seated around the table was my younger brother, Frank, and his family. For years Frank had been the feckless, thoughtless, bane of my existence. But now in his thirties, my little brother was finally grown up and married to one of my best friends, Bertie Kennedy. Their young daughter, Maggie, was seated between them. The child was keeping a beady eye on Kevin, seemingly determined to ensure that the birthday boy didn't get so much as a smidge more cake than she did.
Any minute now the sugar high was going to kick in, I thought as I gazed around the room. And then we'd really be off to the races.
And just like that I remembered my dream.
"I had the strangest dream last night," I said.
"Oh?" Aunt Peg looked up from her cake. "I read a book about that."
"About dreams?" Bertie asked. Her dark green eyes twinkled with amusement. "Or strange things?"
"Dreams, of course. Did you know that they're the way your subconscious works through problems while you're asleep?" Peg peered at me across the table. "Do you have any problems that need working out?"
She would ask that. There's nothing Aunt Peg enjoys more than involving herself in other peoples' troubles.
"Not that I'm aware of," I replied. "And certainly none that involve a horse."
"A horse?" Sam sounded surprised. I couldn't blame him. I felt the same way.
From across the table, Aunt Peg glanced at me sharply. I wondered what that look meant.
"That was what was so odd about it," I said. "In the dream, I was riding a horse. I've never done that in my life. The horse was galloping, we were racing like the wind. It's amazing how real it all felt."
"Real indeed," Aunt Peg muttered under her breath. I waited for her to continue but instead she resumed eating. Nothing could distract Aunt Peg from cake for long.
"Where were you going?" Bertie asked curiously.
"I have no idea. Everything ahead was foggy. I couldn't see a thing. We were just running."
"Maybe you were being chased by a zombie," said Frank.
"No." I laughed. "I don't think so."
"Was it a flying horse?" Kev asked. He has a book about Pegasus.
"No, just a regular horse. A very fast one."
"Maybe it was Willow!" said Davey.
Five years earlier, his father, my ex-husband, Bob, had surprised Davey with a palomino pony named Willow. Even though at the time Davey and I were living in a small house on a tiny plot of land, Bob apparently hadn't foreseen any difficulties with the care and management of Davey's new pet. As ponies went, Willow was lovely, but she hadn't lasted long.
"A pony," Kevin said with sudden interest. He had heard the story from his brother. "I want a pony!"
"Don't be silly." Aunt Peg sniffed. "Why would anyone want a pony when they can have Poodles instead?"
Poodles indeed. We not only had Standard Poodles, we were literally surrounded by them. And as Aunt Peg would have said, what was wrong with that?
Poodles come in three different sizes, but all share the same superb temperament. They're smart, they're endearing, and they have a superior sense of humor. Best of all, Poodles are people dogs. Wherever their family is, that's where they want to be.
Since the birthday celebration was taking place in the dining room, that meant that aside from the eight people sitting at the table, we also had six black Standard Poodles lying in attendance on the floor around us. Five of the six were even wearing party hats. The Poodles didn't look nearly as delighted about that development as Kevin did. In fact, judging by the expressions on their faces, they were feeling rather silly.
In my defense, the hats hadn't been my idea. Sam and Davey had snuck away and done the honors while I'd been busy greeting our arriving guests. But Aunt Peg's horrified gasp when she rounded the corner and saw the assembled crew — she being of the firm belief that Poodles are entirely too dignified to be treated frivolously — was gratifying enough to make me wish that I'd been a coconspirator.
All our Poodles are the Standard variety, the biggest of the three sizes. The top of Faith's head is nearly level with my waist, which positions her entire body within easy reach whenever she and I want to hold a conversation. That comes up more frequently than you might think.
Aunt Peg is Faith's breeder. Indeed she was connected in some way to nearly every dog in the room, her Cedar Crest line having set the standard for excellence in the Poodle breed since before I was born. A dedicated owner-handler in the show ring for decades, Peg had now scaled back her breeding and exhibiting commitments to concentrate on her burgeoning career as a dog show judge. As is true with many of Aunt Peg's decisions, that change in course has had the effect of keeping us all on our toes.
Faith's daughter, Eve, now lying beneath Kevin's chair in the hope there'd be spillage, was the second Standard Poodle I had brought to my marriage to Sam. He'd joined the union with two bitches of his own, Casey and Raven, both of whom were — like Faith and Eve — retired show champions. Sam was also the owner of GCH Cedar Crest Scimitar, also known as Tar.
Formerly an accomplished "specials dog," Tar had numerous Non-Sporting Group and Best in Show wins to his credit. Now, however, like the bitches, he was retired from the show ring and his long, plush, black coat had been clipped off. He, too, wore the attractive and easy-to-care-for sporting trim, with a short blanket of dense dark curls covering his entire body.
Tar was a love. He was the sweetest, most well-meaning dog of the entire pack. But he was also the only dumb Poodle I'd ever met. Somehow, no matter what was going on, Tar always managed to be a beat behind the rest. Punch lines, along with other of life's intricacies, simply went right over his head.
Our newest addition and the only dog currently "in hair" was Davey's Standard Poodle, Augie. Davey was responsible for Augie's care; and with Sam's help, he was also managing the young dog's show career. The collaboration was a successful one as Augie was already halfway toward the goal of accumulating the fifteen points he would need to be named a champion.
In deference to his long and oh-so-valuable topknot hair, Augie was the only Poodle not wearing a party hat. He didn't appear to be upset about the omission. In fact, I was pretty sure I'd seen Augie sniff derisively in Tar's direction when he thought no one was looking.
Having heard Aunt Peg reference their breed, several dark heads lifted as the Poodle pack turned into the conversation at the table. Ears pricked as they waited to see what would happen next.
"Don't care," Kevin replied firmly to Aunt Peg. "Have Poodles. Want a pony."
"Ponies are too big," I told him mildly. "Besides, you already have fish."
Kev's aquarium, a cherished Christmas present, was visible through the doorway in the living room. My son refused to be mollified. He thrust out his lower lip and started to shake his head. Despite the date on the calendar, we clearly hadn't yet left the Terrible Twos behind just yet.
"And you have cake," I added.
"Cake," Kevin echoed. His expression brightened as Sam reached over and slid another sliver onto his plate. "I like cake!"
"Don't we all," Frank said heartily. He reached over and helped himself to a second piece. "That's why I came tonight."
"And also because it's Kevin's birthday." Bertie leveled a glare at her husband. "Right?"
"Sure," Frank agreed easily. "That, too."
"Has it occurred to you," Sam said to me, "that maybe the reason you were thinking about horses is because of Peg's judging assignment at the Kentuckiana Cluster next week?"
"No," I replied. That thought hadn't crossed my mind at all.
Aunt Peg's upcoming trip to Kentucky had nothing to do with me. Bertie, who was a professional handler, was also making the trip to the Midwest. With four back-to-back dog shows scheduled to take place in Louisville, and several clients whose dogs were looking for majors, she had entered a sizeable string to show. But with spring break starting in just two days — two whole weeks of vacation from my job as a special needs tutor at private Howard Academy — I was looking forward to nothing more strenuous than sleeping late and reading several good books.
"Speaking of which," said Aunt Peg, "while we're on the subject, I have an announcement to make...." She paused and looked around, waiting until she had our full attention.
"Which subject is that?" asked Sam. "Kentucky?"
"Judging," Bertie guessed.
"Cake," Frank contributed, speaking with his mouth full.
"Fish!" cried Kevin.
Excerpted from Live and Let Growl by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2016 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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