“Sympathetic and delightful heroines.” —King’s River Life Magazine Who knew the world of designer purses could be such a dog-eat-dog business? When a local, designer handbags store owner is found dead, the police first believe it’s an unfortunate accident. But the evidence doesn’t lie. Before you can say "wiseguy," Bow Wow Boutique owner, Melinda Langston’s, former fiancé and undercover FBI agent, Grey Donovan, is the prime suspect. Now the two are working side-by-side to prove Grey's innocence— nothing personal, just business. Or is it? Suspects are piling up, family secrets are exposed, and no one is who they appear to be, including Mel’s newest employee. Time’s running out. Mel better sniff out the killer before she and Grey end up sleeping with the fishes. Sparkle Abbey is the pseudonym of two mystery authors (Mary Lee Woods and Anita Carter). They are friends and neighbors as well as co-writers of the Pampered Pets Mystery Series. The pen name was created by combining the names of their rescue pets—Sparkle (Mary Lee’s cat) and Abbey (Anita’s dog). They reside in central Iowa, but if they could write anywhere, you would find them on the beach with their laptops and, depending on the time of day, with either an iced tea or a margarita. Visit them at sparkleabbey.com.
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"THIS IS A BAD IDEA."
"It's a fine idea," Grey Donovan, my on-again, off-again fiancé countered. We'd been "off" for months now. Eight to be exact. To be honest, our last break-up felt final. I didn't see us ever being "on" again. His unexpected arrival at my shop, Bow Wow Boutique, and subsequent offer to help me restock shelves at ten thirty in the morning, wouldn't convince me otherwise.
His assistance felt calculated, as if helping would persuade me to agree to his preposterous idea to use my shop as a surveillance base for his current undercover FBI assignment. White-collar crime, art theft to be specific, was his specialty. Everyone in Laguna Beach knew him as a local art gallery owner, which provided him with the perfect cover. Which begged the question, why couldn't he continue to use his gallery as his cover? I wouldn't ask; he wouldn't tell. Just like he wouldn't say why my shop was the "perfect" location or what his assignment was about.
"Chocolate éclairs with a chai tea latte is a fine idea. A walk on the beach at sunrise is a fine idea. This"— I made a circle in the air between us —"this is crazy talk. And a conversation best not had in public." I looked toward the unlocked door, concerned a customer could enter at any moment.
His gaze followed mine. With a low voice he said, "If I remember correctly, you like crazy talk."
He wasn't going to give up. "Grey, it's awkward." My tone matched his.
"Workable." He pivoted on the heel of his Armani Oxfords, and with his back to me, effortlessly unpacked a cardboard box of gourmet dog treats. I guess he'd decided the conversation was over.
I made quick work of hanging the last handful of small collars then continued to watch Grey as he meticulously lined the cellophane-wrapped bundles of bone-shaped cookies on a top shelf.
"See how well we work together?" Grey handed me the empty box.
I tossed it aside and watched the box land next to an end-cap of pawlish, designer dog cologne, and hair dye. Apparently, the discussion wasn't finished. I sighed at his dogged tenacity.
"We got along because we weren't talking. I still think it's a bad idea. Everyone will want to know why you're spending time here. What am I supposed to tell them?"
He merely shrugged his broad shoulders. He wore a dark-blue Tom Ford power suit, looking solid and charismatic. "Don't tell them anything."
"Avoidance won't solve anything. You know this town. Everyone gossips, including my customers." As my Grandma Tillie used to say, "Gossip spreads faster than mildew in a wet basement."
"Tell them we're working things out."
"No one will buy it." The late-summer heat wave must have killed some of his brain cells. We certainly didn't sound like we were working out anything. We sounded like we were arguing.
"People believe what they want. We just have to make them want to believe the narrative."
I used to find his confidence sexy. Today it was annoying. "And how do we do that?" I could have kicked myself for taking the bait.
He offered a lazy smile. "Be ourselves —"
My skeptical laugh filled the room, cutting him off. "I'm pretty sure that's why we broke up in the first place." And the second place. And the third place.
"Okay." He shoved his hands in his pockets and thought for a moment as he watched the front door.
His brown hair, normally cut above the collar, was a few weeks past the usual scheduled monthly trim. Was he actually growing sideburns? Regardless of his more "relaxed look," he was as handsome as ever, but for the first time he looked out of place in my shop.
"We could use the break-ins. It wouldn't be out of character for me to spend more time here." His voice low, thoughtful.
The Laguna Bash 'n Dash was what the media had labeled the three break-ins. The first two had happened shortly after the stores had closed; the most recent one, in the early morning. Nothing had been taken — not money or merchandise. Just random break-ins. The last I'd heard, the police weren't closing in on a suspect, and the local business owners were on edge. Were the culprits bored juveniles looking for a cheap thrill? Or was someone looking for something specific and just hadn't found it yet? It was all very strange.
I had to admit, the situation had me uneasy, too. So uneasy, I'd been leaving my bulldog, Missy, at home instead of bringing her to the shop. Missy may look like a guard dog, but lacked the temperament. She'd rather be everyone's buddy. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to her.
"Here's an idea," I said, grasping at straws to end the conversation before we were interrupted. "Darby's studio is next door. Use her business as your base of operations. I'm sure you can come up with a believable lie as to why you need to be there frequently."
Darby Beckett, my best friend, owned Paw Prints Photography. Bless her heart, she was extremely loyal to me. I doubted she'd agree to let Grey spend a significant amount of time at her studio no matter what excuse he produced. But the suggestion was worth a try if it kept Grey out of my shop.
He rocked back on his heels. "You really don't want to do this, do you?" I was taken aback at his genuine surprise. "No, I don't."
He whistled softly under his breath. "Melinda Langston, since when did you become risk adverse?" I bristled at his accusation, even though I knew he was purposely egging me on. "You won't goad me into agreeing."
I was a risk taker. I loved an adrenaline rush, the thrill of successfully tackling something just out of my reach. But what he proposed was dangerous to my heart, and that was different.
Grey leaned nonchalantly against the counter, his blue eyes alive with the competitive banter. His intense scrutiny made me itchy. I narrowed my eyes, scrutinizing him in return, trapping us into a game of who'd blink first.
"You're scared," he said.
Heck, yeah. But I'd never admit it to him.
"You know how I feel about lying. For us to pretend we're together when we're not, even for your secret operation ..." I shrugged.
"It's important." The words "to me" hung in the air unspoken.
I blew the bangs from my eyes, determined to win this argument. "I understand. Let's be honest, you could hang around the boutique every day, for hours on end, while we pretend to be back together, but our friends, my customers ... they won't buy it."
"I disagree. But I can compromise. How about this? I'm here to woo you back. It wouldn't be the first time."
Woo? Not the first time? What did that even mean? At least he didn't say "win" like I was a novelty carnival prize.
The front door of Bow Wow jerked opened, triggering the welcome bell. Thank the good Lord we were interrupted, because I had no idea how to respond to his off-the-cuff statement without saying something I would regret.
"What are you doing here, Handsome?" My eighty-something assistant, Betty Foxx, danced toward Grey, her raisin-lipstick-colored eyebrows lifted in joy. It was a new color, and in my humble opinion, one of her better choices. I'd never asked about the lipstick eyebrows. Whatever the reason for her unique makeup application, it would never live up to all the reasons I'd come up with on my own. Don't ask, don't be disappointed, was my sentiment.
When she reached his side, she raised a papery cheek for a quick kiss, which Grey willingly obliged. The smell of fresh coffee and lilacs surrounded her, and I wondered where she'd been.
"I'm here to see Mel —" he started.
"I thought you were going to be here an hour ago?" I directed my question to Betty before Grey could weave a charismatic story meant to serve his grand plan of making my shop his operations base.
Betty had been scheduled to open the boutique, but had texted early this morning that she had an errand to run and would be late. Knowing Betty, that errand could have been making a bank deposit or casing the bank for a future heist. You just never knew what the impish octogenarian was plotting. Even though she could be taxing at times, I adored her spunk to live her life to the fullest.
"After I took care of my personal business, I ran in to Mason Reed from the Hot Handbags store up the street. He wanted to know about the Mobster Film Festival sponsorship you were twisting his arm about."
The Mobster Film Festival was a fundraiser for Angels with Paws, a local nonprofit organization for seizure response dogs. Ella Johns, president and daughter of the founder, had asked if I would agree to secure sponsorships from Laguna businesses. As a fellow rescue supporter, how could I say no? I take my fundraising seriously.
"I wasn't twisting his arm," I said.
Betty threw me a "Get real" look.
"I was twisting Quinn's arm." Quinn, Mason's much younger wife, liked to spend money. I hoped she'd drop a few thousand in the Angels with Paws direction.
Betty snorted. "It's all the same to him. He's a little off, ya know what I mean?"
I did know, but entertaining that line of conversation would only drop us down a rabbit hole.
"So did you convince him?" Normally our tight-knit, downtown business owners were the first to give to a great cause, but due to the recent break-ins, most owners were reluctant to cough up money they might need later for repairs and replacing damaged merchandise.
"Of course I did. I told him you'd be over later today to pick up a check." She scooted past me and dropped her purse on the shelf under the counter. "Cookie didn't let you talk." She circled back to Grey, undeterred. "What are you two hiding?"
Grey flashed a good-humored smile. "Can't a guy stop by and check out the new merchandise?"
"You fostering a new dog I don't know about?" she asked.
"Not right now."
Betty propped her bony elbow on the counter, leaning closer to Grey. "Exactly. Spill it, Big Guy. Why are you here? We're not investigating any dead bodies, so you're not here to tell us to keep our noses clean. You and Cookie aren't doing the horizontal hokey pokey anymore since you broke her heart, so you're not here to make plans."
I choked back an automatic denial about my previous broken heart. "Hello, I'm standing right here."
Her raisin-colored eyebrows disappeared under her thinning white hair. "Am I wrong?"
Grey tipped his head toward me, the corners of his eyes crinkled with entertainment and subterfuge. I hated that I could decipher what he silently communicated. He was about to test the waters for his new cover story, and there was nothing I could do to stop him that wouldn't look suspicious.
"After the break-in at Baubles, I thought I'd check in and see how Mel was holding up."
"The jewelry store break-in happened three days ago." Betty dismissed his answer without a second thought. "Besides, Cookie's not your girlfriend anymore. She doesn't need you checking on her. Heck, you didn't do that a whole lot when you were together. We can take care of ourselves. You're up to something."
He held his palms upward. "I'm an open book."
She narrowed shrewd eyes, glaring in his direction. You could practically hear the wheels turning in her head. "I heard you were parading a new sweet thing around town last week. A tall blond. Not as good-looking as Cookie from what I hear. Maybe this mystery woman's got something to do with why you're here."
I couldn't stop my head from reflexively snapping to attention. What was Betty talking about?
Grey's eyes hardened, his voice terse. "Not true. If you hear that again, I'd appreciate it if you'd correct them."
"I gotcha," she cackled, pleased with herself. She slapped his arm. "You've finally admitted you were wrong and want Cookie back. That's why you're here. It's written all over your face. You can't hide anything from me. I got your number, Handsome."
The fist squeezing my heart relaxed, the ache quickly turning into annoyance. "Betty, you shouldn't joke about stuff like that." I eyed Grey and muttered under my breath, "This doesn't change anything."
They appraised me with knowing looks. Betty's unfounded conclusion only emboldened Grey's wild plan. I forced myself not to flinch under their stares.
"You sound upset, Cookie. I thought you were over the big lug?" She didn't wait for a reply; instead she turned her attention to Grey. "I learned something else. Since you're back on Team Cookie, you should know Mason's claiming you sold him a junk picture."
Grey stiffened. "Is that so?"
"Now, don't get all worked up," Betty said. "I cleared that up for you even before I knew you were back on Team Cookie. I told him he didn't know what he was talking about; you don't sell flea market imitations. But you better follow up with that airbag. He's a mouthy handful."
Betty smoothed her wide-legged pajama bottoms, the blue floral print too big for her small frame. Yes, I said pajamas. There was a lot about Betty that didn't make sense, but for me that was part of her charm.
"Mason Reed thinks you've sold him forgeries?" I asked Grey. "Why would he think that?"
"It's under control."
I knew from experience his official FBI tone meant that was all he'd say. So I dropped it and took the unexpected opportunity to change the subject.
"Well ... thanks for dropping by. I believe you were just on your way out when Betty arrived."
"Cookie, are you wearing your cranky pants today?"
"Yes, and my butt has never looked better."
I expected Grey to leave, but his hesitation suggested he wanted to say something. He glanced at Betty once more then said to me, "We'll talk later."
"I bet you'll do more than talking." Betty laughed at her innuendo.
Grey winked at her. "If I'm lucky."
"Enough, enough." I ushered him out the door. I wondered if he would slip next door to talk to Darby like I'd suggested. He gave me one last look, an expression I didn't want to decipher, and then walked in the opposite direction.
"You were hard on him, Cookie. Still haven't forgiven him, eh?"
"You didn't mention where you went this morning."
Betty hmphed. "You're not my keeper. What are you gonna do about those boxes you left in front of the pawlish? I can't sell product if you're trashing up the place."
I smiled. We were both deflecting. I grabbed the empty cardboard boxes I had tossed aside earlier and stacked them in the storeroom. I'd break them down and toss them in the recycling dumpster behind the building later. I had an errand to run first.
"Betty, hold down the fort for a bit. I'm going to walk over to Hot Handbags to pick up that check for the festival before Mason changes his mind."
"Good idea. You gotta catch him while you can. He's a slippery one." She kept her back to me as she answered, obviously not wanting me to see her shove a small sheet of paper inside her purse. Interesting. Mason wasn't the only slippery character in my orbit today.
THE SUMMER SUN had burned through the typical ocean-side morning fog by the time I started the short two-block walk up the street to Hot Handbags. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the salty air. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, crowded sidewalks, and bad parking jobs — all a dead giveaway that it was tourist season. I wasn't complaining. For this Texas-born SoCal transplant and self-proclaimed beachaholic, it was another beautiful day in paradise.
Except for dealing with Mason. He looked like a trustworthy guy with his "Who me?" shrugs and seemingly interested head tilt as you were conversing. Once you got past the façade, you realized he was arrogant, superficial at best, and enjoyed a sly put-down at someone else's expense. Nor did he give his time or money for the betterment of the community without something in return. Maybe I was overly suspicious. If you asked my mama, she'd be the first to agree.
In their defense, Mason and Quinn Reed were relatively new to Laguna, having arrived about a year earlier. That could explain their reluctance to jump head first into overly active community committees, church socials, and local fundraisers. But it had been a year. Certainly they'd had plenty of time to get their bearings. There was something fishy about those two, mostly Mason, only I couldn't put my finger on what it was. Yet.
With the Laguna Mobster Film Festival a month away, I'd been after the Reeds to donate something — a handbag, a wallet, a keychain — anything we could auction off. Each time I'd approached Quinn, she'd always responded the same. "I'm sure we'll do something." But the way she'd said it felt more like a brush-off than a commitment of any kind.
Once I had realized I wasn't making progress with the direct approach, I altered my strategy and targeted Mason's ego. As a sponsor, he could simply write a check, and his name and business logo would be plastered all over town. No extra participation required. Unfortunately, that hadn't worked either.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dogfather"
Copyright © 2018 Carter Woods, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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