As owner of an upscale doggy daycare and spa, animal-lover Sue Patrick pampers pooches for the most elite clients in Lewes, Delaware. Surely she can survive a weeklong visit from Lady Anthea Fitzwalter, her well-to-do business partner from England. But before Sue can serve her guest a spot of tea, she discovers more-than-a-spot of blood inside the company van—and all over the driver’s dead body . . .
Someone abandoned the van full of dogs at the Lewes ferry terminal and got away with murder, leaving Sue and Lady Anthea pawing for clues. With a fundraising gala approaching and Buckingham Pet Palace facing scandal, can two very different women work together to fetch the culprit from a list of dodgy suspects—or are they heading toward a proper disaster?
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"Sue! Hi!" My customer gave the Buckingham Pet Palace lobby a furtive once-over. "Is she here?"
No need to say who she was.
I propped my elbows on the reception counter and lowered my voice like I was about to reveal news to her and her alone, secrets people would kill for. "Her flight from Heathrow landed on time. She flew into Dulles. The driver called me from there and then again when they crossed the Bay Bridge." I was happy to indulge her curiosity with minute details; after all, I had worked long and hard to get everyone in Lewes, Delaware talking about Lady Anthea Fitzwalter. The whole town seemed to be looking forward to the first visit of our very own royal personage.
"Good afternoon, Lydia." My head groomer, Mason, joined us, leading a geriatric beagle. He handed our customer the leash, then pivoted to give me a tired, put-upon nod.
"Thanks for fitting us in. I wanted Loopy to look his best for Friday's gala."
Mason turned back to her and managed a weak smile. I telepathically dared him to point out that the beagle looked pretty much the same after a groom as before, the exception being the Union Jack bandana Loopy now wore. Though only in his mid-twenties, Mason was one of the best dog groomers in Delaware. This particular dog had hardly been a challenge, still I complimented him on a job well done. But received no acknowledgment.
"You look tired," she cooed. Bingo! That's what Mason was longing to hear.
"Exhausted. You have no idea." Mason reached a toned and heavily tattooed arm down to give Loopy one final behind-the-ear scratch, then dragged himself away, calling over his shoulder, "I did teeth and glands."
She turned back to me. "Sue, is he okay?"
"He's loving every minute of it." Mason's hangdog expression hadn't fooled me at all. He tells me weekly that he's an artist. On Saturday he told me he was suffering for his art. I slid Lydia's credit card slip across the counter and showed her where to sign. "Both of my groomers are booked solid getting all the dogs ready for the gala." Abby, my standard Schnauzer, still needed to be groomed. It was only Monday, so I wasn't worried. I discreetely tucked the receipt into a cellophane bag along with a gluten-free dog treat in the shape of a blow-dryer.
She patted her shoulder bag. "I have my invitation right here. Engraved, even. Oh, my. Very nice." She paused in her quick sentences. "Might we see Lady Fitzwalter during the week here?"
"Oh, yes. She'll be in and out all week. Drop by anytime for tea." I pointed to the table of Twinings tea and Wedgwood mugs, which we have out every day. Our usual fare of Walkers shortbread had been replaced by the more labor-intensive clotted cream and scones. Of course, the Savannah Road Bake Shop had done the heavy lifting in baking the pastries. I'd purchased the clotted cream from a British specialty grocer in Wilmington. Though Walkers sported the coat of arms and the words, By Appointment HM the Queen, showing their Royal Warrant status, I wanted something special for my co-owner's visit.
Our contract allowed Buckingham Pet Palace to use her likeness and her name, but Lady Anthea had gone above and beyond that with her frequent emails, sometimes asking astute business questions, sometimes attaching photos for me to use. I appreciated all she'd done to make the Pet Palace a success and I wanted her to know it.
The front door opened and my afternoon receptionist floated in. Dana would be starting her senior year at Cape Henlopen High School next month. She has the biggest afro in the history of the world. My blond hair is cut short, so balance was maintained in the hair universe.
"Hi, Dana," Lydia and I said at the same time.
"Hey!" She and her hair leaned over to pet Loopy. She's truly beautiful — not pretty, not attractive — but beautiful. She takes advantage of our relative proximity to Manhattan to model part-time. I wondered how many hours she would be able to work at Buckingham's in the fall and how much time she'd spend in New York, beefing up her college fund.
Loopy lay down and rolled over on his back. A blatant appeal for a belly rub from Dana. Lydia shook her head. "None of that, young man. They have a party to put on," she said, giving the leash a slight tug. The dog reluctantly accepted defeat and stood. "See you Friday," she called on their way out.
"Bye. Don't forget to come back any afternoon for tea," I called.
Then I turned to Dana. "Am I ever glad to see you! It's been crazy here."
She came around to join me behind the desk. "And it's only Monday." She looked at the dashboard document on the computer screen. "Looks like we have double the number of dogs in day camp than usual!" She checked to be sure the lobby was empty, then she broke into a little dance. "Yayus!"
I had to laugh. "The schedule is like that all week." I took a deep breath and looked longingly at my office. It's along the back wall, as is the reception desk, but tucked behind a wall. When I was at my desk, I could see and be seen by the staff, but not by pet parents on the other side of the counter. On said desk there was a to-do list I'd pummeled into submission. I rubbed my forehead and tried not to think about the amount of money I'd spent making Lady Anthea Fitzwalter's first visit to Buckingham's a success. Her week-long stay, topped off with the Pet Parent Appreciation Gala, should give us financial stability, assuming any small business could ever have that. With all the new day camp and boarding clients, not to mention grooming appointments, my gamble was paying off.
I turned back to Dana. "We just have to keep our heads above water this week and we'll be fine. I'll be in my office. Yell if you need me."
I made a beeline to my computer to check the status on the few arrangements yet to be finalized. There was an email from Beach Blooms with a photo attached. For the gala, they had initially proposed gardenia topiaries to delineate the space on the beach and gardenia plants for centerpieces, but gardenias were toxic to dogs. What did they have for me this time?
How about yellow orchids and coral roses to mirror the sunset? The photograph was of a sample on the beach at Roosevelt Inlet, at sunset.
Perfect! I wrote back.
All of the gala arrangements had fallen into place just like that. The Event Request Form had been approved almost before the ink was dry. The Noise Amplification Form had been signed overnight by the mayor and city council.
I kicked my sandals off and put my feet up on my desk. I laced my fingers behind my head and sighed. I don't know about you, but when my nails were done and my house was clean, I felt like I could do anything. Only one of these was the case, but that's the feeling I had. Like I could rule the world. Of course, my house was clean. Lady Anthea had asked if she could stay with me. My cottage-style house in a new section of town was cozy but modest, whereas the Inn at Canal Square, in historic downtown Lewes, was old-world elegant. It's very expensive, but each of their seven rooms was decorated with antiques. Who wouldn't prefer that? Lady Anthea, that's who. Her own house had a name, it was Frithsden. Mine did too. It was house.
The walls in what we called our Sleepover Suites were decorated with photographs of the estate that she'd provided. There was one for each season. Our customer restroom had framed photos of the Frithsden gardens that looked natural and free, but at the same time planned, a feat only the English could pull off. Those images I'd lifted from the internet. Downton Abbey has nothing on Frithsden. Then there was the revelation, thanks to Wikipedia, that we had been mispronouncing the name of her estate for over a year. It wasn't Frithsden, like we'd been saying, it was Friz-den. For about a month we'd all walked around repeating it, over and over, so we wouldn't slip up when we met Lady Anthea in person. Obviously, she was used to something better than my spare bedroom, but she emailed that if I had a guest room, and that if it wouldn't be too much of an imposition, that'd be A-OK with her. Actually, "brilliant" had been her word. She'd said she would enjoy getting to know me better. Truth be told, it was a lot more convenient for me. My house was in the residential area behind Buckingham's and in easy walking distance.
At five o'clock on the dot, pet parents flooded into the lobby. I could hear Dana checking out day campers. Shelby, my assistant manager, had joined her and was checking in overnight boarders.
The main phone line rang. "Buckingham Pet Palace, this is Sue Patrick."
"This is Kate Carter, Robber's mom," the voice on the other end of the line said. The eyes of her female collie mix were circled with dark brown fur, making her look like she was wearing a mask. Robber was a regular at day camp and always used our door-to-door service. Lewes was a beach town but not everyone here was on vacation. We're happy to pick a dog up from his home. For a fee, of course. I've heard of pet spas in California that use limousines. Show-offs. We're happy with a Honda van painted our signature golf-course-green with our logo. "Could you tell me what time she'll be brought home?" Kate asked.
"Henry left at the regular time. He was dropping off four dogs. Would you hold while I check to see where he is now?" I left my office and headed for the reception desk. "Shelby, have you heard from Henry?" Then I noticed she had a phone to her ear.
Shelby had been my first hire. She was forty-five, about five years older than me, and five-foot nothing. With that red hair, she may not be tall, but you wouldn't call her short. She shook her head, no, then put the phone under her chin. "It's Mr. Andrews. So-Long isn't home. He says he absolutely must eat at five sharp." Shelby's eyes betrayed just a hint of a roll, nothing the customers in line would notice. Then she pointed to Dana, who was on a call herself.
"Paris isn't home either," Dana stage-whispered, her shiny hair swaying. "I have Mrs. Rivard on the phone."
"I'll call Henry." I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and speed-dialed his work cell phone. While it rang, I whispered for Dana and Shelby to tell Kate Carter, Charles Andrews, and Betsy Rivard we'd call them back. After a generous number of rings, the call went to voice mail. I knew he'd see the missed call and didn't bother to leave a message. "He's not answering. Maybe he's walking a dog in now."
The three of us took care of the remaining ten clients in line.
"Who was the fourth dog in the van?" I asked.
Shelby searched in her curly hair for her glasses, finally extricating them. "Dottie, that Dalmatian puppy, was with them. We haven't heard from Dayle Thomas. She's the pet photographer, right?" She reached over and dialed the phone.
"Yeah, I'll try Henry's cell again." No answer. Enough of hoping he'd see the missed call. "Call me, Henry!" I told his voice mail. I walked around the counter and looked out the front window. Shelby had reached Dayle Thomas, and I went back to the reception desk to get the latest update.
"Ms. Thomas says Dottie is there. She had just gotten home from her photo shoot when Henry got there."
Dana moved closer to me to whisper, "Where is she?" She motioned to the large photograph of Lady Anthea Fitzwalter seated on what looked like an antique bench, ankles crossed, and flanked by two of her corgis. She was the centerpiece of the painting, but the bottom half of an ornately framed portrait of one of her ancestors could be seen over her shoulders.
"She's at my house." I dialed my van driver again. Nothing. "She's freshening up." Why did I just say that? I hate it. It implies you were something else before. All I know is, it's a phrase you don't want to overthink.
The bay window of our gift shop gave a better view of the side parking lot, empty except for my Jeep and Shelby's Prius.
Shelby raised an eyebrow. "She's probably running up your phone bill, making international phone calls to her idiot brother, the duke." There was a lull with no clients, so Shelby could speak loud enough for me to hear from the store where I was straightening a row of tiara chew toys. We may have Googled Lady Anthea's brother. We may have done it a lot.
Dana giggled. "That's harsh."
"Can either of you explain to me how he can make the same speech at every charity event and museum opening he goes to, and still not speak in complete sentences?" Shelby taught high school English until she had quit in a blaze of glory. She and her husband, who had been an analyst on Wall Street, visited our ocean one Christmas break and they never went back. She took a job walking dogs and realized she liked their personalities better than those of the children she'd been teaching.
"When Lady Anthea gets here, remember that we know nothing about her brother."
The phone rang and I was back in reception in a flash. Shelby covered the receiver with her palm. "It's chief somebody. He needs to talk to you."
"Huh?" I cocked my head from one side to the other, the way Abby does when she hears something she wants to understand but can't quite make out.
Shelby shrugged her shoulders. She didn't know who it was either.
"Is it something you can handle?"
She looked around to be sure there were no pet parents in the lobby and answered. Then she put the call on speaker. "This is Shelby Ryan. Can I...."
There was a roar over the line. "I AM CHIEF JOHN TURNER OF THE LEWES POLICE DEPARTMENT!" The man took a breath and I could hear dogs barking in the background. I had a visceral reaction to the distress I heard. "Your van was found abandoned in a line of cars leading to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal parking lot. I am two seconds away from having the door forcibly removed."
Math's never been my strong suit, but there were three of us and four no's. I glanced up at Dana and Shelby. Their mouths were in O's and they were fixated on something over my right shoulder. Slowly I turned.
"Lady Anthea?" I reached my hand out to shake hers.
This was our first in-person meeting. I knew from her bio that she was about my age. And, like the picture in my head, she wore a knee-length skirt with a blazer. These were blue, accessorized by the Hermès scarf tied around her neck along with sensible pumps. Her eyes swept over the three of us dressed in khaki Bermuda shorts and green tops with Buckingham's logo. We were wearing our polo shirts, our summer uniform. In the fall we'd switch to button-down oxford shirts. I wasn't prepared for the raised eyebrow, nor the mouth in a hard, straight line.
Whatever. I ran to my office for my handbag — which is really a beach bag — and grabbed the keys on the plastic peg shaped like a dog's tail. I yelled at the phone, "I'm on my way. I'll be there in five." It would take me ten minutes. I motioned for Shelby to disconnect the call. "Shelby, call the DRBA police desk in the ferry terminal. Ask for Wayne. Tell him I'll buy him a drink if he stops this. Dana, keep trying Henry's cell."
As I ran by Anthea, it occurred to me that she might be able to help. What's the use of having a local celebrity if they can't get you and your dogs out of a jam? Without slowing down, I grabbed her arm. "Come with me."
I pulled out of the Villages of Five Points community and, in one of those little gifts from the universe, caught a green light to make the left onto Savannah Road. My passenger was silent. Our twoyear-old partnership was the result of a project by Global She, an international organization of female small business owners, to encourage collaboration among women from different cultures. I'm not sure we're what they had in mind, but it's worked.
I was born and raised in Lewes but hadn't lived here since I went away to college in Georgia. After graduation I worked as a dog walker, sitter, and trainer in one East Coast beach town after another. I had never stayed more than a couple of years in any of them. When I was thirty-six, I came home to Lewes. I was ready for the next phase of my life to begin. I wanted to open a pet daycare and boarding facility, with lots of frills. But mostly, I wanted to stay.
I knew a lot about caring for dogs, but I needed something to make my business stand out. I needed help with branding. Lady Anthea Fitzwalter was offering her consulting services. I sent her an email with my proposal and offered a percentage of the profits. For years, I'd read about this or that royal being a charity's patron, and that was what I had in mind. She wrote back right away with her approval and the "pet-ronage" began.
To make conversation, I pointed to the local veterinary clinic, Lewes 24-Hour Pet Care.
Excerpted from "Stay Calm and Collie On"
Copyright © 2017 Lane Stone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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