The Dogfather

The Dogfather

Sparkle Abbey

September 2018 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-885-1

The Pampered Pets Mysteries, Book 10

 
Our PriceUS$14.95
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Back Cover Copy




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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"Sympathetic and delightful heroines.” —King’s River Life Magazine


Excerpt



Chapter One

"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.

Yet somehow Betty had convinced Mason to cough up five grand. I was still trying to wrap my mind around it. A part of me wondered if Mason had really agreed to a sponsorship or if Betty had heard what she wanted to hear and I was about to be thrown out on my behind.

I pushed open the heavy glass door of Hot Handbags. A rush of cold air-conditioned air swept over me as I walked inside. My heart skipped a beat at the site before me. I had a thing for purses. Looking around the smallish boutique, my fingers twitched wanting to touch the gorgeous bags lined up along the back-lit shelving units attached to the walls. Chanel. Louis Vuitton. Tory Burch. Kate Spade. Stella McCartney. Gucci. Hermès. Coach. The smell of luxury—expensive leather and designer perfume—clung to the air.

A handful of customers milled around the store, gently caressing the high-end accessories. Well, maybe not caressing, but definitely treating the merchandise with reverence.

I spotted Quinn descending the contemporary wrought-iron staircase in the back of the store. She looked every inch the television version of an Orange County housewife in her white cigarette pants and black, sleeveless, eyelet top. Her five-inch heel caught the edge of the bottom stair; she stumbled, grabbing the railing to right herself. One of the women fawning over a Stella McCartney velvet shoulder bag gasped.

I rushed over to Quinn. "Are you okay?”

She brushed away my hands. "I’m fine, thank you.” She smoothed the beach-blond locks flowing over her shoulders. She gave me the once-over, wordlessly pronouncing judgment with a raised brow. My "I don’t need therapy, I have a dog” t-shirt, jeans, and flats were found underwhelming.

She gingerly placed weight on her foot. Seeming uninjured, she strutted into the middle of the store. "Is there something you needed, Mel?” she asked over her shoulder.

I smothered the annoyance bubbling inside me. I swallowed my pride and followed like an obedient puppy.

"Betty told me that you and Mason have agreed to sponsor the Angels with Paws event next month, and I needed to pick up the check this morning. We really appreciate your contribution. The film festival is gearing up to be a huge success.”

Quinn rolled her striking green eyes. "Your grandmother can be rather dogged when she wants something.”

A burst of laughter escaped me. "She would say older sister, but we’re not related. She works at the boutique. Betty has become invested in the festival the last couple of months. She’s hoping for a good turnout so Sal Poochino will make an appearance.”

Quinn’s plastic smile told me she’d stopped listening.

I released a deep breath and started over. "Anyway, if I could just grab that check, I’ll get out of your hair and you can get back to your customers.”

"Wait here.” She spun around and headed back to the staircase she’d almost tumbled down minutes earlier.

I weaved through a number of displays, making my way closer to a couple of other customers who were whispering like star-crossed teenagers.

"It’s wearable art,” the short brunette whispered reverently.

"Oh, you’d be Queen Bee of Omaha with the Gucci shoulder bag. You have to buy it!” The tall black-haired gal picked up the bag and shoved it at her friend.

Summer tourists made the best customers. Their enthusiasm was contagious. A Christian Louboutin, silver leather clutch caught my eye. It was every handbag snob’s dream. Love at first sight. Casual so­phist­ication. Modern. The perfect complement to a pair of metallic Rene Caovilla sandals in my closet.

As I internally debated the purchase of the handbag, the front door opened and Nina Fernandez, a loyal customer of Bow Wow Boutique and lover of all canines, strolled inside. The second she saw me, her brown eyes widened, and a bright smile spread across her red lips. She rushed toward me, unknowingly saving me from dropping an obscene amount of money.

When she reached my side, we shared a couple of customary Nina cheek kisses. Right then left. Her slicked-back, long ponytail swung from side to side.

"Mel, I was just at your shop.” She held up a small Bow Wow bag. "Betty just sold me on the cutest plush monkey toy. Dash will love it.”

"You got away without buying a bottle of doggie cologne? I’m shocked.” Dash was the most adorable dachshund puppy. His soulful eyes melted my heart every time he stopped by the shop.

Nina waved her free hand nonchalantly through the air. "Oh, that’s just a given. You know Dash likes to smell good for the ladies. It’s so great to see you. How’s Missy? I noticed she hasn’t been at the shop the last couple times I’ve been there.”

"She’s good. I haven’t felt comfortable bringing her in since the last break-in.”

Nina’s eyes widened. "Any news on who’s behind that?”

I shook my head. "Not that I’ve heard.”

"Even with your direct line?”

I laughed, a tad uncomfortable. She was referring to my unusual relationship with Homicide Detective Judd Malone. "That line only picks up when dead bodies are involved.”

She patted my arm reassuringly. "I guess it’s good that there are no dead bodies then.” She sighed dramatically. "I am worried that if the police don’t catch whoever is behind these nuisance crimes we’ll lose the foot traffic downtown. We can’t afford that.”

"I know. I’m sure the police are doing everything they possibly can. We just need to be patient.”

Easier said than done. I couldn’t say that I was afraid to be alone at the shop, but I did worry about Betty at times. She believed she was invincible; capable of defending herself (she’s taken self-defense classes) and anyone else who happened to be inside the store should we become the target. I’d experienced the gun-toting, bad-kung-fu-moves side of Betty. A little erratic and unpredictable was the kindest description I could come up with. Not a good look for anyone.

Nina looked around quizzically. "Are Mason or Quinn around?”

"I haven’t seen Mason, but Quinn’s upstairs grabbing a check for the film festival next month.”

Nina looked surprised. "They gave you money?”

I shrugged. "Betty managed to get Mason to agree.”

She leaned in close. "Did she blackmail him?” she whispered.

If she’d asked that about anyone else, I’d have laughed and brushed it off. But Betty was involved. History had taught me, anything was possible if she believed the end result important enough.

"I’m sure she just wore him down. You know what she’s like when she makes up her mind.” I quickly changed the subject. "We can count on you and Dash to attend the festival next month, right?”

"Of course we’ll be there. I already know what he should wear to the special viewing of The Godfather. I love that we’re dressing our dogs as our favorite character. Such a grand idea.”

I smiled. "I’d love to take credit for it, but I can’t.”

"I need to bring Dash to the boutique to try on the costume I have in mind. Maybe tomorrow? And you can show me what Missy’s going to wear.”

"Absolutely. I can’t wait to see which one you’ve picked. I haven’t decided on something for Missy. Of course Betty has something over the top in mind for Raider.” Raider was Betty’s full-of-life Saint Bernard. He was two years old and almost as big as Betty. She’d been working with my lovely cousin, Caro Lamont, pet behaviorist extraordinaire, to learn how to control Raider. It was a work in progress. So was my relationship with my cousin.

We continued to chat about upcoming events. I could hear a land­line ringing upstairs. Suddenly, Quinn’s cold voice thundered from up­stairs. Nina trailed off, and we looked at each other, awkwardly eaves­dropping. I shrugged, not sure what would have triggered Quinn to lose her cool knowing she had customers in the store. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but her tone was aggressive. Whoever was on the other end was getting an earful.

Nina cleared her throat and made her excuses, then meandered toward the front of the shop. I should have followed her, but my inquiring mind wasn’t so easily distracted. It didn’t matter. As soon as the yelling had started, it stopped. I felt a twinge of disappointment the show was over.

Oh wow! I sounded like Betty. There was a sobering thought.

Speaking of Betty, I wished I’d brought my cell phone along. There was no telling what she had been up to in my absence.

Within a few minutes I could hear the familiar clip-clop sound trailing down the staircase. I walked in her direction, praying she wouldn’t stumble on the last step again. Quinn was mumbling something under her breath as she made her way downstairs.

I met her at the bottom step. She released a deep breath, regaining her composure. Whatever that phone call had been about, it had definitely shaken her.

She was also empty handed.

Before I could say anything, she shook her head. "It seems Mason has the checkbook. Unfortunately, I cannot write that check after all.”

She looked flustered. Because of the phone argument or because of the missing checkbook? Hard to know.

"I can come back later this afternoon,” I pressed.

Her cheek twitched. "Tomorrow. I have a spa day scheduled in the morning. Mason can take care of his own mess.”

Here it was. Betty had heard what she wanted to hear. "He’s changed his mind?” I hedged.

She brushed her long bangs to the side of her face, tucking them behind her ear. "I told you we’d do something. Apparently, Mason decided on a sponsorship. He’ll have a check for you.”

"Signed?” I don’t know what made me think to say that, but it didn’t seem out of character for them to invent excuses to not part with the money.

She stiffened. "Of course.”

"Wonderful. Nothing could keep me away.”



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