With a demanding teaching job and five poodles scampering around the house, Melanie Travis barely has energy for the upcoming Christmas rush. But she unwraps an unexpected challenge when her brother and ex-husband make a spontaneous bid on a dilapidated pine tree farm. Although the ten-acre lot had been a popular seasonal destination while the original owner was still alive, it’ll take a small miracle or two before the neglected place is in shape for December.
But the business venture goes cold when the group discovers a purebred Maltese whimpering in the snow-covered grove—right beside a dead body. Pete, a squatter who camped out on the land, apparently met his end after a fallen fir tree branch fell on his head. But as Melanie and Aunt Peg investigate Pete’s complicated history, it’s clear his death was no accident. Now, Melanie must run through a flurry of likely suspects and muzzle a dogged murderer in time—or she’ll be next on someone’s deadly list.
“Well-drawn characters contribute to the appeal here, along with the warm, sometimes humorous scenes of family life.”
“Another terrific mystery from Laurien Berenson.”
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"Ho! Ho! Ho!"
I was sitting at the kitchen table, working on a project for one of my fellow teachers when the back door to the house flew open. A blast of frigid air hit my papers and sent them scattering across the tabletop. My hasty grab to save them didn't help. Instead, I knocked into my laptop and sent it spinning into my half-full coffee mug.
Five black Standard Poodles had been snoozing on the floor at my feet. Startled by the intrusion, they jumped up and began to bark. Bud, the little spotted mutt who was the latest addition to our canine pack, scuttled over to stand beneath my chair. Quickly I righted the mug and scrambled to gather the papers before they could blow off the table.
Peace and quiet to utter mayhem in under ten seconds. Even for my house, that was a record.
I turned and aimed a withering look at our uninvited guest. My brother, Frank, was standing in the open doorway, grinning like a fool. Unfortunately, that was nothing new.
"Some welcoming committee," he said, gazing at the dogs.
The Poodles were now looking embarrassed by their outburst. Of course they recognized Frank. They just hadn't expected him to come flying through the door on this tranquil Saturday morning.
Any more than I had.
"Be glad they didn't bite you," I told him.
"They wouldn't do that." Frank took a step back. "Would they?"
Nope. No way. Not unless they thought there was a dire need.
My dogs were Standard Poodles, the largest of the three Poodle varieties. They were smart, funny, perceptive, and wonderfully affectionate. Poodles are people dogs. They would definitely attempt to think their way through a problem before resorting to violence.
On the other hand, my little brother has often been the bane of my existence. Maybe it wasn't a bad thing he didn't realize that.
"Come inside and close the door," I said. "It's freezing out there."
"It's December," Frank told me. Like we weren't all aware. "Merry Christmas!"
"Oh please. Christmas is a month away. We're still eating leftover turkey from Thanksgiving."
Frank shut the door, then pulled off his parka and draped it over the back of a chair. "It's never too early to embrace the Christmas spirit."
He walked over to the counter, got a mug out of the cabinet, and poured himself some coffee. The Poodles had yet to resettle and were still milling around the room. Faith, the oldest of the group, was keeping an eye on Frank. As he made himself at home in my kitchen, she shot me a look. Is that allowed?
I nodded silently. Faith has been part of my life for nearly eight years. I had never had a pet as a child, so she'd introduced me to the joys of dog ownership. I'd immediately fallen in love with Faith's sweet disposition, her empathetic nature, and her goofy sense of humor. My Poodle and I are soul mates. The relationship we share is deeper and more meaningful than I ever imagined was possible.
Faith found a quiet spot on the floor to lie down. I pushed my work stuff aside as my brother sank into a chair on the other side of the table. It looked like he was going to be here awhile.
"Is there any particular reason why we're feeling the need to embrace Christmas already?" I asked.
"As it happens, there is." Frank made a show of looking around the room. "Where is everyone?"
Aside from the six dogs who were very much in evidence, the rest of the family included my husband, Sam, our three-and-a-half-year-old son, Kevin, and Davey, our older son from my first marriage. On weekend mornings, our house is usually a hub of activity. I should have known better than to think I would actually score an uninterrupted hour in which to get some work done.
"Davey spent the night with Bob and Claire." Bob was my ex-husband and Claire was his new wife. Married the previous New Year's Eve, they lived in a house on the other side of Stamford. "He'll be back this afternoon. Sam and Kev are running errands."
I looked pointedly at the cluttered tabletop. "I'm supposed to be working."
Frank leaned forward eagerly. His straight brown hair, the same tawny shade as my own, fell forward over his eyes. Absently, he reached up and brushed it back. My brother and I also shared hazel eyes and a strong, determined, chin — a feature that looked better on him than me.
Beyond the physical similarities, however, Frank and I didn't have a lot in common. Growing up with a four-year age difference, we were always more likely to be squabbling than to have each other's backs. Even now that we're in our thirties — with Frank married to one of my best friends and partner in a thriving business — I still find it hard to think of my little brother as a mature adult.
"What are you working on?" he asked.
"Just school stuff."
See, this is the problem. I'm pretty sure that Frank didn't show up in my kitchen at ten o'clock on a snowy weekend morning to talk about my job. For the record, I work as special needs tutor at a private academy in Greenwich, Connecticut. Frank is already well aware of that. Which means that for some reason he's either stalling or trying to butter me up.
Color me skeptical, but neither of those options ever seems to end well. For me, that is. Things often turn out just fine for Frank.
But since I wasn't in any hurry to find out what sort of dilemma he'd found himself in now, I figured I might as well humor him. "Remember the Christmas bazaar last year at Howard Academy?" "Who could forget it?" Frank smirked. "You were in charge of running the event and your Santa Claus got himself killed."
"Most people wouldn't find that funny," I told him.
"Most people don't have a sister who has a habit of tripping over dead bodies."
Sadly, he did have a point.
"It turns out that Russell Hanover, HA's headmaster, has asked me not to participate in this year's bazaar."
"Gee, I wonder why."
I ignored him and said, "I'm organizing my notes so I can hand them over to the new chairman, in case he wants to see what worked for me and what didn't."
"Big help, Mel. I'm pretty sure he already knows what didn't work." Frank was laughing now.
It was almost enough to make me wish one of the Poodles had bitten him. Maybe Tar. He's our older male Standard, a retired specials dog who'd enjoyed an enviable career in the dog show ring. Tar is drop-dead gorgeous. He's also endearing, endlessly amusing, and, well . . . dumb. Tar is the only Poodle I've ever met who's lacking in intelligence. He makes up for that deficiency by trying really hard to get things right.
Tar wants to be good. He just doesn't always succeed. And usually he hasn't a clue why. Come to think of it, he and Frank had more than a little in common.
"Very funny," I said. It was time to cut to the chase. "Frank, why are you here?"
"About that...." He gazed at me earnestly across the table. "I need a favor."
Then a sudden thought hit me. "Is everything all right at home? Bertie's doing well? Maggie and Josh are fine?"
Bertie and I had been friends for almost a decade, She'd been married to my brother for half that time. Their daughter, Maggie, was four and their second child, a son named Josh, had been born in September. The pregnancy wasn't an easy one and ten weeks after Josh's arrival, Bertie was still taking time to regain her footing.
"Sure, they're great. Bertie and Mags have everything under control. It's just that Josh, well, he's ..."
Frank winced. "I guess I didn't remember this part. Josh cries a lot. I mean, he really wails. Maggie never did that."
"Maggie wasn't colicky," I told him. "You know Bertie had Josh checked out and he's fine. This is just a stage he's going through."
"Yes, but that doesn't make it any easier. I feel like I haven't slept in days."
If Frank was angling for sympathy, he wasn't going to find it here. "Poor you," I said. "Does Bertie need my help?"
"Bertie?" Frank frowned. "Why are we talking about her? I'm the one with a problem."
Of course he was. I should have realized that. I settled back in my chair and asked, "What did you do now?" " It wasn't my fault."
It never is, I thought with a sigh.
"You know The Bean Counter's been doing great, right?" I nodded.
The Bean Counter was a café situated just north of the Merritt Parkway in Stamford. Originally opened by Frank, the bistro was now owned and operated in partnership with my ex-husband, Bob. The two men worked well together. Frank served as manager while Bob took care of the finances. Over the years, the café's popularity had grown and now it was considered a trendy destination for people who lived and worked in the area.
"Things are going so well that Bob decided we should start looking around at other investments," Frank explained. "Mostly real estate, because here in Fairfield County it's hard to go wrong."
"That sounds like a good idea," I said cautiously.
"I know, right?"
Frank sounded so eager for my approval that I found myself nodding again.
"So here's what happened. Yesterday morning, Josh would not stop crying. It was making me crazy. I had to get away, you know? So I figured I'd hop in the car and go for a drive."
It might have been more helpful if he'd taken Josh for a drive, I thought. Apparently that useful idea hadn't occurred to my brother.
"So there I was meandering around Wilton, not going anywhere in particular, when I saw a sign by the side of the road. It said ABSOLUTE AUCTION! ALL BIDS ACCEPTED! It turned out that ten acres of land was being sold to settle an estate. And just my luck, the auction was taking place at noon. I figured I might as well go have a look."
Oh boy. I could guess where this story was heading. Frank never had been able to resist a deal.
"Only a couple of other guys even showed up to bid. Maybe because it was the day after Thanksgiving, and everyone else was busy at the mall. Honest to God, I was only planning to watch and see how it went. But ..."
"You raised your hand, didn't you?"
"I had to," Frank said earnestly. "Compared to the other lots Bob and I had looked at, this place was a steal. Ten acres of forested land in the northeast corner of Wilton. Wait 'til you see it."
I didn't need to see the property to know that if a deal sounded too good to be true, there had to be a catch.
"You know there's probably something wrong with it," I said. "Some zoning issue or easement dispute that needs to be resolved. Maybe the place is all wetlands. And an absolute auction means you own that land now, no matter what the problem is."
"I'm not worried about that." Frank brushed off my concern. "I'm sure Bob will get everything straightened out."
Possibly, I thought, depending on what the difficulty was. But Frank might also be placing too much faith in his partner's abilities. Bob was an accountant, not a magician.
"I'm glad you're happy with your purchase," I told him. "But there's really no need for me to see it."
"Sure there is! You haven't even heard the best part yet."
"There's more?" I asked dubiously.
"This isn't just any old piece of land with trees on it. The old guy who owned the place died over the summer, but through last winter he was running a seasonal business there. You're going to love this. Our new property is a Christmas tree farm!"
It took me a minute to form a suitable reply.
Frank couldn't wait that long. "Isn't it great?" he prompted.
"Um ... yes?"
"And Christmas is in four weeks. Which makes this whole thing, like, perfect."
No. It was so not like, perfect.
"Frank, what are you going to do with a Christmas tree farm?"
"Get it up and running, of course."
"Don't you have to make preparations to do something like that?"
Frank, never one to plan ahead, seemed surprised by the question. "Like what?"
I could think of half-a-dozen answers off the top of my head. I went for the most obvious one. "Maybe grow some trees?"
"That's the beauty of it. The place is already overgrown. It's a veritable wilderness out there." My brother refused to let my misgivings dampen his enthusiasm. "You'll see. That land is going to pay us back in no time."
His phrasing brought me up short.
"Just to be clear," I said. "By us, you mean you and Bob, right? Sam and I aren't any part of this scheme."
"Not unless you want to be. But if I were you, I wouldn't make any hasty decisions about that. Wait until you see the place."
At least that was good to know. I was still feeling suspicious, however.
I peered at my brother across the table. "Have we come to the part yet where you ask me for a favor?"
"It's about Bob."
There was a sudden, sinking feeling in my stomach. "You talked to him before buying this place, didn't you?"
"Not exactly," Frank admitted. "Because I never meant to bid. And then it all happened so fast there wasn't time to check with him."
That was bad. Possibly really bad.
"You and Bob are supposed to be partners," I said. "And he has no idea you spent his investment money on a Christmas tree farm?"
"It's my money too." Frank sounded defensive. "And I know he'll be fine with the idea once he has a chance to think about it. That's where you come in. You guys are still friends even though you're not married anymore. I figured you could break the news to him."
I shot that idea down in a hurry.
Then for my second act, I ushered my brother firmly out the door. After that, I went back to work. That lasted approximately twenty minutes before all you-know-what broke loose again. At least this time the chaos involved people I was happy to see.
"We got kibble!" Kevin announced. Almost four, he has yet to learn how to use his indoor voice. Or maybe he was just trying to make himself heard from within the pack of Poodles — including honorary member Bud — that was now eddying around his short legs.
"Forty pounds." Sam followed Kev through the connecting door from the garage, cradling the first bag in his arms. "That should last us a while."
Sam is tall, and strong, and surprisingly graceful. He has a great smile and the hands of a virtuoso. When he yanked off his wool cap and tossed it on the counter his blond hair, currently cropped short, stood straight up. If he hadn't been carrying twenty pounds of dog food, I'd have reached up and smoothed it back into place. As it was, I jumped up and hurried to open the pantry door.
Inside, the bag landed on the floor with a loud thump. Sam emerged from the pantry and headed back to the garage for the second load. I started to follow, then realized that Kev was peeling off his mittens and down jacket. He dropped them on the floor, then sat down to yank off his red rubber boots.
I quickly nudged aside the Poodles and scooped up Kev's discarded clothing before Bud could beat me to it. That little dog was obsessed with knitwear. Winter had barely begun and we were already on our third pair of mittens.
"Boots and jacket in the closet," I said to Kevin, handing them over.
He ambled toward the front hall and a Poodle escort followed. Kevin has been known to drop cookies, shoes, and the occasional rawhide strip. Tar, Faith's daughter, Eve, and our younger male, Augie, trailed along behind him, no doubt hoping for edible discards.
Bud, meanwhile, had given up on the mittens and gone trotting into the pantry. He was probably checking out the new bag of kibble. Half-starved when he'd been dumped by the side of the road the previous summer, the small dog had gained back all the weight he needed and more. Pretty soon he was going to be on a diet.
"Anything exciting happen while we were gone?" Sam asked when he'd delivered the second bag, shooed Bud out of the pantry, and firmly shut the door behind him.
The question — Sam's customary homecoming query — had become a standing joke. The way my life went, you'd think he would know better than to ask. But apparently not.
"Frank dropped by," I said.
"Just Frank? Not Bertie and the kids? Is everything all right?"
"More or less. My brother made an impulse purchase yesterday. He stopped in to tell me about it."
Sam had crouched down beside our fifth Standard Poodle, Raven. He was ruffling his hands through her coat. "Christmas shopping already? Good for Frank. If he braved the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, he's a better man than I am."
"He didn't go to the mall." I pulled out my chair and sat back down. "Frank bought a Christmas tree farm."
Sam paused to let that sink in. Then he looked up. "You're kidding, right?"
Excerpted from "Wagging Through the Snow"
Copyright © 2017 Laurien Berenson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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