It’s the first-ever polar bear plunge in Lake Wallapawakee, and Daphne and Lauren are among the eighty or so people who charge into the frigid water to raise funds for animals in need. Daphne makes it back to shore—with the help of a mysterious St. Bernard—but Lauren is dragged out stone cold dead. Now, with her trusty basset hound Socrates at her side, Daphne intends to assist Detective Jonathan Black in his investigation—whether he wants her to or not . . .
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 Thirtieth Annual Sylvan Creek Tail Waggin' Winterfest promised to be even bigger and better than the festivals of years past, which was saying something, because the pet-friendly, week-long event had long been the highlight of January for many folks in the Pocono Mountains.
And this year, the little village of temporary huts that was always erected at wooded Bear Tooth State Park, on the shore of Lake Wallapawakee, had been completely refurbished; each tiny, heated shack painted a pretty, but wintry, shade of robin's egg blue. There were more vendors, too, selling things like gourmet hot chocolate, s'mores, and cold-weather gear for dogs and cats. For the first time ever, a polar bear plunge would kick off the festivities later that evening, and the bonfire that burned at the center of the ephemeral town crackled in a bigger ring of stones, while the paths through the festival were lit by new glass lanterns. There were even moonlit walks through the woods, led by old Max Pottinger, who told the tale of a legendary spectral Saint Bernard that supposedly patrolled the vast network of cross-country ski trails, guiding those who lost their way.
Strolling through the heart of the festival on a night that threatened snow, I couldn't help thinking the scene was picture-perfect. And yet, something didn't seem quite right.
"It's almost too nice this year," I complained to my sister, Piper, and my best friend, Moxie Bloom. Slipping on some ice in my favorite flea-market cowboy boots, I nearly dropped my third s'more. Then I righted myself and added, "Don't you think it's kind of odd?"
"The festival's definitely different," Piper agreed, kicking through the snow in her sensible, waterproof boots, which matched her rated-for-the-Arctic down parka. My sister was a veterinarian who often saw patients literally in the field, and she was always suitably dressed for the weather. And as someone who'd restored an 1800s farm, called Winding Hill, Piper wasn't necessarily opposed to updating shabby structures. "I like the fresh paint," she noted, with a glance at a booth selling hand-knit sweaters for dogs. "And the vendors are better this year. I think it's nice to have more than just the VFW selling hot dogs." She frowned, still staring at the hut, which was strung with clotheslines that sagged under the weight of small cardigans and pullovers. "Although, while I'm a fan of Arlo Finch's crafts, I'm not too fond of his practice."
"You're just too rational," I said, waving to Arlo, a lanky, bearded, graying hippie throwback who practiced holistic "pet healing and energy therapy" when not knitting adorable canine garb. I'd already stopped by Arlo's booth and purchased an argyle cardigan for a one-eared, drooling Chihuahua that I used to foster, even though I had trouble picturing the man who'd adopted Artie buttoning the little dog into a sweater. Especially one knitted from free-range yak yarn and delivered in a bag that advertised Arlo's practice, Peaceable Pets. I made a mental note not to mention the yarn when I dropped off the present. "I'm definitely open to the idea of alternative medicine," I added. "Some therapies have been time-tested over centuries."
"I agree with Daphne," Moxie said, tucking her hands deeper into a fluffy, white fake-fur muff. "I would totally get acupuncture, if I wasn't scared of needles."
Piper gave Moxie a funny look, then grumbled, "New Age medicine is all mumbo jumbo." I suspected that she was a bit grumpy because her boyfriend, Professor Roger Berendt, was in Europe for the next five months, on sabbatical. She zipped her parka right up to her chin as we all walked on, past ice sculptures that were also new to the festival. The frozen artwork glittered in the moonlight. "And I don't know why you wouldn't like an improved Winterfest, Daphne."
"Because even the people look like actors," I complained, sidestepping a twenty-something couple who might've walked directly off the pages of an L.L. Bean catalog. The woman had a tiny, perfectly groomed Yorkie tucked under her arm, and the man sipped cocoa from a commemorative mug. I couldn't ever recall Winterfest having a logo before, but the ceramic cups featured a cartoon image of the legendary Lake Wallapawakee Saint Bernard, who was romping in a snow pile. I watched for a moment as the man and woman stopped to check out the dog sweaters, the woman holding up an even cuter cardigan than the one I'd bought. Darn it. Then I returned my attention to Piper and Moxie. "Don't you think the whole thing is kind of ... Stepford Wives-ish?"
"Ooh, I love that movie!" Moxie cried, missing the point. "Although, the festival reminds me more of White Christmas than robot wives."
Moxie, of course, knew both movies by heart. She loved all things vintage and, along with the muff, wore a 1940s wool coat that nipped in at the waist, a pair of leather boots with fur trim around the ankles, and a turban-style hat that hid one of her few concessions to modernity, her spiky red hair.
All at once, as I studied my friend's attire, I realized that her outfit, like the too-flawless setting, was a little ... off.
"Umm, you know you have to ditch all your clothes on the lakeshore, right?" I asked Moxie, with a glance down at my old barn coat, tattered wool mittens, and oversized boots. My long, unruly, dirty-blond curls were tucked under a knit ski cap I'd found on the floor of the pink 1970s VW bus that served as headquarters for my business, Daphne Templeton's Lucky Paws Pet Sitting. In short, I looked like I was about to muck out stalls, while Moxie could've gone shopping on Park Avenue — circa 1945. "Aren't you a little overdressed?" I suggested. "You look awfully nice to jump in a lake."
Moxie stopped in her tracks and pulled the muff back close to her chest. Her green eyes were wide with surprise. "Why would I jump in a lake? In January?"
I looked at Piper, who was rolling her eyes, as if to say, I knew this would happen.
Then I turned back to Moxie. "Because we're doing the polar bear plunge this year!" I reminded her. My s'more was oozing, but I hardly noticed the gooey marshmallow dripping onto my mitten. "You're the one who suggested it!"
Moxie shook her head. "Oh, no. I said we should go to the plunge. I didn't say we should do it."
As I tried to recall a conversation Moxie and I'd had a few weeks before, I heard a soft snuffling sound, almost like laughter, and looked down to see that my canine sidekick, a normally taciturn, introspective basset hound named Socrates, was struggling to contain a rare show of amusement.
"This is not funny," I told him, which didn't stop his tail from twitching, just a tiny bit. His usually baleful brown eyes also twinkled with amusement — until I gave him a warning look, and he hung his head, his long ears dragging in the snow. Needless to say, Socrates had refused to wear a hat, and he'd turned up his freckled nose at the insulated jacket I'd offered him, too. Canine apparel appalled him. "I'm already registered," I added, addressing Moxie again. "I have a number. I have to do the plunge!"
"Moxie is smart to sit the event out," Piper said. "From what I've seen, the organizers slapped the whole thing together at the last minute. I don't think there are even plans to restrict the number of people who enter the lake at one time. It could be a mess."
"I'll be careful," I promised, thinking she was worrying too much. "And it's for a good cause. All the proceeds go to feed the rescue cats at Breard's Big Cats of the World."
"I don't know if I support that 'charity,'" Piper said, continuing to be critical. She'd never admit it, but she was definitely missing Roger, whom she'd been seeing for several months. "Is it a zoo?" she noted. "A shelter? A nonprofit, even? Because you have to pay to tour the place."
I honestly wasn't sure how to classify Big Cats of the World, either. But I knew that Victor Breard, a native of France, had a good reputation for taking in exotic animals that were rescued from bad situations — say, the tiger cub someone illegally adopted, then couldn't handle — and giving them safe, secure homes on his licensed 200-acre preserve, just outside Sylvan Creek.
"Well, regardless, I'm doing the plunge," I said, shooting Moxie a dark look. I was ninety percent sure she had misunderstood our earlier conversation.
"I'm sorry, Daph," she apologized. "I'd register now, but I'm not wearing a bathing suit." Then she raised her muff. "Besides, what would I do with Sebastian while I was swimming?"
"What?" Piper seemed puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
I was also confused. "You've named that fake-fur thing?"
I was starting to think Moxie had gone over the edge, when all at once a tiny white head popped out of the muff. A small, twitching nose sniffed the cold air, and a pair of intelligent pink eyes blinked at me. I jumped, and Socrates, normally unflappable, took a few steps backward, nearly bumping into one of the ice sculptures.
I had to force myself not to pull away, too. "You adopted a rat?"
Moxie raised her hands to let Sebastian brush his little cheek against hers. "Yes! It turns out small pets are allowed in my apartment. And he's adorable, don't you think?"
I loved animals, and I'd taken care of everything from pythons to tarantulas, but something about rats spooked me, as Piper knew all too well. She grinned at me. "You look awfully taken aback, for somebody who often quotes the Dalai Lama about the importance of loving all living creatures."
My pragmatic, successful sister loved to mock my admittedly impractical PhD in philosophy.
"I'm sure Sebastian and I will end up being friends," I told Piper and Moxie. I forced myself to meet those pink eyes again, and Sebastian blinked up at me, then squirmed and returned to the warmth of his mobile den. I caught a glimpse of his naked tail slithering away and fought back a shudder, even as I said, "I promise, we'll be buddies, soon."
When the rat was out of sight, Socrates exhaled softly, like he was also relieved.
"I guess you're right about the plunge, Moxie," I added glumly. "You can't take a rat into freezing water." Then I looked hopefully at Piper. "Unless ..."
"Moxie doesn't have a bathing suit," my sister reminded me. "And I'm afraid I can't hold Sebastian. I'm here on official, if unsanctioned, business, looking out for any dogs that might follow their owners into the water, then get panicked or hurt in the crowd."
"Sorry," Moxie apologized again, as we passed by a hut selling mulled cider and warm donuts. I'd finished my s'more and briefly debated buying yet another treat, in an attempt to fatten myself up, like a walrus insulated with blubber, then decided it was too late. "I wouldn't take part this year, anyhow," Moxie noted. "Not when the whole thing will probably be filmed!"
I grew even more concerned. "What do you mean by that?"
"Everybody from the media is here," Moxie explained. Her hands were trapped, so she nodded over at the bonfire, where kids were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks, while listening to old Max Pottinger spin the tale of the mysterious Saint Bernard, prelude to leading another walk in the woods. Max — wizened, bent, and seemingly oblivious to the cold in a flannel shirt and ball cap — spoke in hushed tones, but his listeners were wide-eyed and rapt. The only exception was the new owner of, and only reporter at, the Sylvan Creek Weekly Gazette, who was in constant motion, snapping photos of Max and his audience. "I do not want Gabriel Graham putting my frozen, screaming face on the front page of a paper that people are actually starting to read now," Moxie said. "And you know he'll pick the most unflattering picture for page one!"
"Yes, he probably will," I muttered, as Gabriel — thirty-something, good looking, and perhaps too charming — crouched down and snapped away. The flames roared up behind him, and I couldn't help thinking that, with his dark, wavy hair, goatee, and gleaming white teeth, he looked a little bit like the devil.
Gabriel must've sensed that he was being observed, because all at once, he straightened, slipped the distinctive red plaid strap on his hefty Nikon camera around his neck, and began to walk in our direction.
"Hey, everyone," he greeted us, with a nod to Socrates. I wasn't sure if I liked Gabriel, but I appreciated that he included the shortest member of our party, who sometimes got overlooked. Although I couldn't understand how. Socrates had a certain gravitas. Then Gabriel smiled at Piper. "Nice to see you." Before she even replied, he looked me and Moxie up and down and added, ambiguously, "You two look interesting tonight."
"Why, thank you," Moxie said, taking the comment as a compliment. "My outfit is vintage forties. And Daphne's dressed to jump in the lake."
Gabriel's brown eyes glittered with amusement. "Always up to something, aren't you, Miss Templeton?" he observed. "The last time I spoke to you, you'd just solved a murder."
"Yes." I crossed my arms over my chest. "I read your article — in which you gave Jonathan Black most of the credit for solving the case."
I'd actually helped handsome, enigmatic Detective Jonathan Black solve two homicides during his brief time in Sylvan Creek, but nobody ever seemed to want to acknowledge my contributions. Least of all, Jonathan.
"I'll try to feature you prominently in my story on the plunge," Gabriel promised. "I'll be sure to seek you out when I'm taking pictures. And maybe someday I can do a feature on the pet sitter with the PhD in philosophy who is also opening a bakery for dogs and cats?"
Everybody knew that I was a pet sitter. My van announced my profession and featured a pretty eye-catching painting of a misshapen dog that was often mistaken for a misshapen pony. That was Moxie's handiwork. The fact that I'd rented a small storefront on Sylvan Creek's main street and planned to — hopefully — soon open a bakery for pets was also common knowledge. But I wasn't sure how Gabriel knew about my degree. And I didn't know if I liked his mildly flirtatious, if mocking, tone, either.
"No, please don't feature me ..." I started to protest, my ears getting warm under my cap.
Piper was clearly amused. And Moxie was oblivious to my discomfort. On the contrary, she seemed increasingly excited about the prospect of seeing my "frozen, screaming" face on the front page, and she interrupted me, noting, "Wow, a photo and a feature story!" Her eyes were fairly glowing. "And maybe you'll be filmed by Stylish Life Network, too, when you run into the water!" I looked down at my barn coat again, then caught Gabriel smirking at me. "I think we've all established that I'm not very 'stylish' tonight," I reminded everyone, while Socrates snuffled again.
Gabriel, meanwhile, surveyed the candlelit village, which had been updated with support from the network, for a show called America's Most Pet Friendly Towns. Sylvan Creek had been chosen — some preferred the word targeted — for the program the previous year, and a crew had been filming — some said "terrorizing" — the community for nearly six weeks, with no sign of packing up and leaving.
"Stylish Life did help to make this place look pretty nice," Gabriel observed. "Not too shabby, for a festival in a forest."
"Actually, I was just complaining that everything looks too perfect," I said, stepping back so two adorable Samoyed puppies could dart past me. I watched the pair tumble in the snow, thinking I'd never seen the dogs before. Was it possible that they'd been planted by the crew, to add even more "atmosphere"? "I sort of miss the shabby, rustic touches Winterfest used to have," I added. "Like the old luminarias, made from plastic milk jugs, with candles that kept burning out."
Piper knitted her brows, as if she wasn't quite up to speed. "You're saying Stylish Life funded the improvements?" She suddenly seemed less impressed by the changes. Like pretty much everyone in town who dealt with animals, Piper had suffered some run-ins with the film crew. "I didn't know that."
Excerpted from "Pawprints & Predicaments"
Copyright © 2018 Bethany Blake.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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