Raiders of the Lost Bark

Raiders of the Lost Bark

Sparkle Abbey

March 2016 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-677-2

Mel’s enemy may be barking up the wrong tree . . .

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Mel’s enemy may be barking up the wrong tree . . .

But someone is about to become a killer.

Melinda Langston, amateur sleuth and Bow Wow Boutique owner, finds herself "Glamping Under the Stars” with a blackmailer, Orange County’s hottest new gourmet pet chef, Addison Rae. But before Mel can put an end to Addison’s strong-arming, the chef is found dead. Mel is just one of many suspects who had motive to snuff out the demanding chef.

Was it Redmond, the angry sous chef who detested working for Addison? What about rival chef, Pepper Maddox? The glamping chef gig was hers until Addison blackmailed her way into the job. And then there’s Asher, a charming fellow camper whose past relationship with Addison isn’t the only secret he’s guarding. Mel’s not one to tuck tail and run, even when it looks like she may be the next victim.

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


Coming Soon!


Chapter One

THE IDEA SOUNDED LIKE fun. A week of camping at the Laguna Hills Regional Park with your beloved pooch. Or in this case, a week of "glamping.” Glamorous camping. Think oversized, celebrity RVs, king- sized beds, and Persian rugs. I like to refer to glamping as experienc­ing the outdoors on a silver platter—service, luxury, comfort. Well, it is Orange County. You didn’t think we’d actually sleep in polyes­ter tents and smelly sleeping bags from the local sporting goods store, did you?

Here’s the catch—if I attended the event, I had to spend a week with a blackmailer.

Betty snickered. "Glamping Under the Stars By the Sea. Sounds like a prom theme.”

"Yes, it does.”

My feisty assistant, Betty Foxx, tapped the gold-leafed, engraved invi­tation I held. "I’m not about to pass on an opportunity to cozy up next to a hunk all night. What about you, Cookie? You ready to let down all the brown hair you keep hogtied to the back of your head?”

No, Betty wasn’t the blackmailer, although she had been pushing me hard for the past couple of weeks to attend the "Five Paws-Up” Laguna Beach Animal Rescue League fundraiser. I was referring to that sneaky, no-good, pet chef, Addison Rae.

I scowled at Betty and smoothed my ponytail. I’d traded the beauty queen routine for my tomboy style years ago and hadn’t looked back. I liked my laidback style. It sure beat evening dresses and two-sided tape.

"You’ve got to let it die. I’m not going. Stop pestering me about it.” In the past month, I’d had all I could take of Addison and her "favors.” Just thinking about her got my hackles up. Only the good Lord knew what I might do if she walked through the boutique door.

I tossed the extravagant invitation in the wastebasket and returned to stocking the doggie neckties. I’d make a generous donation, volunteer a couple of extra days next month at the ARL, and call it good.

"Why are you being a stick-in-the-mud?” She immediately retrieved the invitation and tucked it safely in her pocketbook, which was stowed under the counter.

"It’s June. Tourist season. You of all people know it’s not the ideal time to close the shop.”

Bow Wow Boutique catered to the pampered pets of our beachside town whether resident or visitor. May through mid-September was the busiest time of year, with Christmas coming in a close second.

Don’t get me wrong. My desire to keep the shop open wasn’t be­cause I needed the cash. Lucky by birth, I came from the Texas Montgomerys. We had an abundance of two things—money and a love for competition. While I didn’t advertise my family’s wealth, the same could not be said about my competitive nature.

Despite my built-in excuse, Betty wasn’t convinced. I didn’t need to see the suspicion in her sharp gray eyes or her arched vengeful red-lipstick colored eyebrows. (I follow the don’t ask, don’t tell philos­o­phy when it comes to Betty’s eyebrows.) I could feel the heat of her questioning gaze across the boutique. I braced myself for the inevita­ble interrogation from the eighty-something know-it-all clad in her pur­ple silk lounging ensemble most women would call "pajamas.”

"Cookie, ever since your handsome fiancé stomped on your heart and then handed it back to you in pieces, you’ve become bor-ing,” she sang out the last word in her best Oprah imitation. "Where’s that gutsy chick who’d close the boutique without a second thought so we could solve a crime like Rizzoli and Isles?”

Wow. Nothing like kicking a girl while she was down. I ignored the sharp ping of truth about Grey Donovan, my on-again, off-again fiancé. We were presently off-again. I was pretty certain our relationship was permanently flat-lined. Yes, Grey had broken my heart. But the truth of the matter was, I had played a larger part in the demise of our relation­ship with my rash actions and lack of trust. But enough about that. No sense dwelling on the past.

It didn’t take a detective to know Betty wanted a reaction from me. I loved her for it. If she wanted to think I wasn’t willing to participate on the adventure because of Grey, that was fine by me. That reason was easier to explain than the truth.

I looked down at my graphic tee which read "Rescued Human”, faded jeans, and motorcycle boots I currently wore. "Am I supposed to be Rizzoli?”

Betty’s white sneakers squeaked against the hardwood floor as she made her way to my side. "Look, each day I wake up with something to look forward to. Sometimes it’s coming here. Most times it’s taking my Raider boy to the dog park like that bossy cousin of yours insisted. But tomorrow, I’m looking forward to sleeping in a gigantic RV and being waited on hand and foot by my very own butler. And finding a little bit of trouble. Since when do you pass up the chance to babysit me?”

I sighed. She did need to be kept on a short leash at times. "I don’t want to close the boutique for a week.” I checked my watch. "Come on, It’s six o’clock. Lock the door and let’s get out of here.”

Before either of us could make our way to the front, the boutique door swung open, the chimes chirping. We looked toward our last-mi­nute guest. Betty automatically called out a warm greeting. I, on the other hand, choked on mine.

Wouldn’t you know it? The "real” reason I wanted to avoid glamp­ing under the stars strolled toward us as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Or my mama’s future in her hands. I sent a quick prayer to the good Lord that I didn’t do something I’d regret later. Just so you know, in the past, He hadn’t been quick to grant that request.

"If it isn’t my favorite blue-haired chef,” Betty announced, com­pletely unaware that she was kissing the fanny of a black-hearted black­mailer. Side note—Addison really did have blue hair. In my humble opinion, it was hideous, which meant Betty adored it.

I dropped the paisley tie I clutched in my fist before I ripped the silk fabric into pieces.

"I’m so glad I caught you before you closed.” Addison’s reedy voice sounded thinner than usual. Like she was out of breath from rushing to catch us before the shop closed.

The girl was a con artist. The only running she did was to catch her next victim.

"Mel, is it true?” she asked. "You’re not coming tomorrow?”

"Sure is,” I ground out. I broke down the empty cardboard box with more effort than it needed. Better the box to be on the receiving end of my ire than Addison.

"You have to go. It’s only because of you that I even got the job for the event.” She weaved past a shelf of dog beds. She spoke with the most annoying false tone of gratitude; surely even Betty had to have picked up on it.

"That was awfully nice of you, Cookie.”

Or not.

"I didn’t get you the job,” I corrected. "I recommended you.”

I brushed past Addison, making my way toward the counter. The two quickly started to gossip like schoolgirls. My heart kicked up a few beats when I realized Addison’s unexpected visit today could possibly be her last. The sooner Betty left, the sooner I’d complete my business with Addison and she’d be out of my life.

I propped the flattened cardboard against the wall and focused on closing out the register. After a quick tally, I stuffed the day’s worth of cash into a red night-deposit bag and locked it.

"Hey Betty, drop this off at the bank. Don’t dillydally.” I didn’t need a witness for what was about to go down next.

She grabbed the deposit bag I held toward her, then snatched her oversized pocketbook off the shelf. "Don’t you worry about a thing, boss. I’ve got pepper spray in my purse, and Detective Hottie on speed dial.”

Good Lord. The bank was three blocks down the street. If I’d thought for a moment she was in any real danger, I’d drop it off myself. I wished her fun on her glamping trip and in turn, she shot me the evil eye. She muttered something about me being a party-pooper just loud enough for me to hear as she walked out the door. I waited until the white-haired rabble-rouser was out of sight before I turned my full atten­tion on Addison.

I crossed my arms. "What do you want now?” I thought I saw Addison flinch at the edge in my voice.

She fingered the pet tags hanging on a display rack. "Still can’t talk you into joining us tomorrow?” She looked at me sideways, her thick blue hair falling across the side of her face.

I shook my head. "Still not interested.”

"But you worked so hard to help me out,” she cooed.

"Save the theatrics for an audience.” I brushed past her toward the coffee bar. The last item of the day was to rinse out the coffee pot. "I held up my end of the agreement.”

"Agreement.” Addison nodded. "I like that.”

I refused to call it blackmail in front of her, even though that’s what it was. "What would you call it?”

"A friend helping out another friend.” She casually waved her hand through the air.

I scoffed. "We are not friends.” If we were, I’d stop her from look­inglike a taxicab in those black-and-white checkered shorts, and yellow scoop- neck tee.

She shrugged. "Under different circumstances, we could have been. We’re similar, you and I. We’re enterprising women who refuse to be people pleasers. We’re both highly ambitious.” She flipped her hair and continued. "That complicates life, being ambitious. But it’s our fuel to succeed.”

Good grief. She acted like she was stumping for my vote. "You’re wrong. We are nothing alike.”

"Just because you want me to be wrong, doesn’t make it a fact.”

What I wanted was to tell her what I really thought of her and her blackmail scheme, but it wasn’t the right time. I may have held up my end of the bargain, but Addison had yet to follow through with her end. And until then, I needed to keep my cool.

I gently set the empty pot on the counter. "Where are the letters?”

She snapped her fingers. "That’s what I forgot.” A nasty smile tugged at the corner of her small mouth. "I didn’t bring them with me.”

I bit the inside of my lip to keep from shouting. "Why not?”

"I have one more favor to ask of you. As a friend.”

"No. No more. I’ve introduced you to everyone you wanted. You’re the pet chef for the ARL fundraiser. There’s nothing left for me to do.”

She smiled. "But you still haven’t written the foreword to my cook­book.”

I could feel my temper slipping. "And then what? Sell your Pampered Pet Cookbook here? But that won’t be enough for you, will it? What next? Get you on Top Pet Chef?”

She snapped to attention, momentarily sidetracked by the possibil­ity of national celebrity fame. "Can you do that?”

"No.” I spat out the word like it was poison in my mouth.

"I’ll tell you what. You write that foreword and bring it to the campground tomorrow. If I like what you’ve written, which I’m sure I will, I’ll give you the letters.”

"I have zero credibility in the chef world.”

Addison’s eyes narrowed as she weaved a tangled web of manip­ula­tion around me. "But you have enormous credibility in the pampered pet world. You’ve built up a trustworthy reputation.” She pushed her lips together. "You do know how to write a foreword, don’t you? All you have to do is tell the readers why they should purchase my cookbook. An anecdote works best to create that emotional connection. I’d suggest writing about how you bounced back from the public humilia­tion of being kicked out of the Miss America pageant, and how you see that same determination in me.”

I was going to kill her. I crossed my arms to keep myself from stran­gling her skinny neck. "That’s never going to happen.”

She waved a hand dismissively. "Fine, fine. It was just a suggestion. Write something boring.”

Write something boring? It was as if she didn’t take the cookbook se­riously. "Again, I’m not a chef. Certainly, you know some else more qualified.”

"Do you want those letters or don’t you?”

"How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

"You don’t.” She laughed lightly. "But you want those letters so badly, you’re willing to take the chance.”

I closed the distance between us, until our noses almost touched. I smelled the mint on her breath. Surely she could feel the rage on mine. "You’d better keep your word or you’ll be sorry. You can only push me so far. Do you understand me?”

A quick movement caught my eye. I jerked my attention to the front of the store. Great! Callum MacAvoy, afternoon news reporter looking for the fast track to the evening news, had his busybody face pressed against my front window, watching Addison and me argue.

I took a deep breath and stepped back. With a short nod toward the front door I said, "You need to leave. Neither of us wants the nosey reporter poking around in our business.”

Addison turned and waved at MacAvoy. "I don’t know, he’s very at­tractive. I thought you were going to get him to do a story on my rise to fame?”

I don’t think I’d ever met such a self-absorbed blackmailer before. Not that I have an abundance of experience to compare her to, but honestly. You expect a level of evil... but narcissism? MacAvoy waved back, and took that as an invitation to come inside. Lovely.

"Leave. Now,” I whispered to Addison. "Or the ‘agreement’ is off.”

Addison hiked the strap of her purse over her shoulder. "See you to­morrow, Melinda Sue.”

As they passed each other, they exchanged a hello. Mr. TV watched her leave, then turned his attention to me. "What was that about?”

I ignored his question. "I almost didn’t recognize you without your pushy microphone and cameraman. It helped that you had your face plastered against my window like a lightning bug on a windshield.”

He flashed his trademark TV-ready smile, strolling toward the back of the store. "Who says I don’t have my microphone?” He watched me for a minute, his green eyes calculating how far he wanted to push me. "That looked intense. Who was that?”

There was no reason to lie. "Addison Rae. I left you a message about her a couple of weeks ago. The pet chef I suggested you do a story on.”

He shoved his hands in the front pockets of his trousers. "Inte­rest­ing. That’s why I’m here. I had a couple of questions before I followed up on your hot tip.”

He didn’t fool me for a second. "You didn’t need to see me. You could have just as easily called.”

"True. But then I would have missed that fascinating exchange. I’m curious.” He rocked back on the heels of his leather loafers. "Why would you want me to run a high-profile story on someone you don’t like?”

Well, hell’s bells. "I never said I didn’t like her.”

"You don’t even treat me with that much disdain, and you don’t like me. What did she do?”

"You’re reading way too much into this. Aren’t you late for... some­thing?” I strode to the register and grabbed my tote from under the counter.

He shook his head. "Not at all. I’ve got all night.”

"Well, I don’t. I have to go home and pack.” I grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him around, and gave him a shove toward the door.

"Running away?” he tossed over his shoulder.

"Hardly. I’m attending the ARL fundraiser.”

I know. I know. I said I wasn’t going to attend. But after that last ex­change with Addison, I didn’t really have a choice if I wanted those letters.

"I didn’t see your name on the guest list,” he said.

Under normal circumstances, his persistence wouldn’t make me un­easy. But the last thing I needed was a hungry reporter with a nose for sniffing out trouble to think there was a story of any kind in his territory.

"I’m Betty’s plus-one.”

I guess I needed to let Betty know I’d changed my mind. She was get­ting a roommate after all.

"WHAT IN SAM HILL is that?”

"That’s a V-B-R.” Betty, dressed in an army-green jumpsuit with mul­tiple pockets across her chest, waved her hand like a Price is Right model.

I dropped the large duffle bag I’d brought outside and told my bull­dog, Missy, to sit. "I hate myself for asking this, but what’s a VBR?”

"A Very Big Rig.”

Of course it was.

"What do you think? It’s our home away from home for the next few days. Isn’t it delicious?” Betty bounced on the toes of her white tennis shoes.

Delicious wasn’t the first word that came to mind. It was a behe­moth of an RV that took up over two-thirds of my street. I mean there’s luxury, and then there’s luxury. This was over the top, yet perfect for an Orange County glamping trip.

Sleek, pearl-black paint glistened in the California morning sun­shine, promising a lavish lifestyle on the road. Missy sighed and lay on the pavement as Betty and I stood at the end of my driveway.

"Where did you get it?”

"Hudson Jones, the program director for the event, emailed a list of companies that rent rigs—”

"Rigs?” She was really getting into the RV lingo.

"Recreational vehicle. Motorhome. Coach—”

I held up my hand. "I get it. I get it. Please tell me you didn’t drive that here.”

She puffed out her chest. "Of course I did. That Hudson Jones guy of­fered me a driver, but I told him to bug off. I’m a great driver.”

"No, you’re not.” I’d ridden with Betty a handful of times. After each jaunt, I’d kissed the ground, thanking the Lord Almighty I was alive, and swore I’d never accept a ride with Racecar Betty again.

"Don’t be a hater, Cookie. If it makes you feel better, Valerie in­sisted I take lessons.”

"With who?” My skepticism alive and well.

Betty lives in an adorable bungalow on her daughter, Valerie’s, prop­erty. I’ve spent some time with Valerie. I wasn’t impressed. She was more concerned with how Betty’s actions would reflect on Valerie’s social climb to the top of the Orange County social ladder than her mother’s well-being.

"The RV rental place. If you had signed up for the party like me, you could have taken lessons too. Oh, I have a matching jumpsuit for you inside.”

"No, thank you. I’ve driven a motorhome before. Granted, not a mammoth thing like that. How big is it?”

"Forty-one feet. I could have gotten a forty-eight footer, but that seemed overkill, ya know?”

"You don’t say.”

Betty peered up at me, shielding her eyes from the bright sunshine. "Cookie, you never said on the phone. Why’d you change your mind?”

I grinned. "Let’s just say you wore me down.”

"I think it has to do with that pet chef.”

For many reasons, I’d kept Betty unapprised about my dark relation­ship with Addison. One being, Betty couldn’t keep a secret if you paid her. The last thing I wanted was for the real reason Addison had come to Laguna Beach this summer to get out. And I definitely didn’t want word to get back to Texas to my mama and daddy.

"Do me a favor, don’t get too close to Addison.”

"No way. I’m sticking to her like glue. She’s going to make sure we all eat like kings.”

She was the pet chef. She’d make sure the dogs ate like kings. "As long as you keep it to food.”

Betty laughed. "Cookie, you’re not jealous are you? First Caro and now Addison. Don’t you worry. There’s plenty of me to go around.”

I was not jealous of Caro. Sure, my feisty red-headed cousin and I weren’t technically speaking to each other, but that had nothing to do with jealousy, and everything to do with Caro taking offense to me ex­pressing my opinion of her yellow-bellied, good-for-nothing, coward of an ex-husband. Not that she’d asked for my opinion. But I’d shared it anyway. And in the process, we’d had "words.” Truth be told, I missed Caro very much. And as soon as I got my brooch back from her, I planned on apologizing.

Let me start at the beginning. The feud was rooted in our disagree­ment of who was the rightful owner of a multi-jeweled brooch. A twenty-two carat gold basket filled with fruit-shaped precious stones wasn’t only monetarily valuable, but was also emotional real estate. It had belonged to our Grandma Tillie—the calm in our crazy lives as young girls. She’d left the heirloom to her "favorite granddaughter.” I knew Grandma Tillie meant me. That said, Caro believed just as strongly that meant her. From that day forward, we were at odds. My inability to keep my opinion about her ex-husband, Geoffrey, to myself only exacer­bated the problem.

As for Addison, within ten minutes of arriving in our laidback town, she’d managed to destroy the unsteady relationship my mama and I had recently started to rebuild. Those damn love letters.

"Enough chitchat. Raider is waiting inside. I need to let him out to do his business. Now, stand back and don’t offer him any treats. Your sassy cousin said to only give him a reward when he obeys.”

"I guess he’s going without,” I murmured under my breath.

Betty shot me a look.

I shrugged. "Just calling it like I see it.” Betty had rescued the ras­cally Saint Bernard pup a few months ago. I’d been worried she’d get hurt if she didn’t learn how to control him. Her barely five-foot self would snap in two if she didn’t teach him three simple commands—sit, stay, and down. I’d recommended she work with Caro, a local pet thera­pist.

Ever since, Betty’s believed she and Caro are best buddies. Betty even interfered in a recent murder investigation thinking she was "help­ing” Caro and homicide detective Judd Malone, AKA Detective Hottie.

"I’ll have you know he’s been a very good boy. He hasn’t knocked me over in two months.”

"That’s something, I suppose.”

Betty pulled out a dried apple ring from her pocket. "Now, watch this.”

She opened the passenger door, then quickly jumped to the side. Raider sat at attention at the top of the four steps, tail thumping on the marble tile. Thick slobber dripped like ropes from the sides of his hu­mongous mouth. I was impressed. I’d never seen him sit for longer than two seconds. Missy jumped up and barked.

"Stay,” I said. She obeyed, but didn’t take her eyes off Raider. I didn’t either.

"Wait,” Betty commanded. She stepped back, making room for him when he exited.

The Saint Bernard scooted his butt closer to the edge of the top step until his large front paws hung over the ledge. His face begged her to offer the dried apple.

"Good grief, he’s going to fall out. Hurry up and give him his treat.”

"Good boy. Come.” Betty slapped the side of her thin leg.

Raider didn’t wait to be told twice. He bounded out of the mo­torhome with one leap, landing inches from Betty. Missy shifted until she leaned against my leg.

Betty tossed the dried apple ring straight up; Raider snapped it out of the air with one bite.

"Good dog.” Betty buried her face in his furry neck. "Good boy.”

"He’s come a long way. You both have.”

"I told you he was a good dog. He just needed someone to believe in him.” Betty’s face beamed with love and pride. I was relieved she’d been taking Caro’s advice.

Betty stepped back into the RV and grabbed his leash off the passen­ger chair, then snapped it on his collar. She walked him to my front lawn. He marked just about every bush and the mailbox post be­fore he ran out of urine. There was something to be said for female dogs.

"Are we ready to go?” I picked up my duffle bag full of T-shirts, socks, a couple of pairs of jeans, and toiletries.

Betty pulled a rag from under the passenger seat and quickly wiped the drool off the floor. Once she was finished, she loaded Raider into the RV. He trotted toward the back and jumped on the leather couch. He sprawled out, claiming his territory. Missy and I entered next. We both stood there for a moment, taking in the interior. I was awestruck. It was as elegant and lush as any mansion in Orange County.

Leather couches, reclining chairs, a fireplace, a sixty-inch TV, and a ceiling fan. And that was just the living area.

Betty stood behind me. "Isn’t that a hoot? We’re going to have fun, Cookie. Don’t you worry.”

I tossed my bag and favorite black cross-body handbag on a reclin­ing chair. "Let’s get settled and head out.”

After a few adjustments, rearranging the dogs, and convincing Betty she wasn’t driving, we were finally ready to leave. I buckled my seatbelt with a decisive snap before I started the RV.

"Wait!” Betty jumped up and pulled a plastic Saint Bernard bob­ble-head from her purse. She spit on the rubber cup on the bottom then smashed it onto the dashboard.

"Let’s rock ’n roll, baby,” she sang out, pumping her fist in the air.

I burst out laughing. "What does that even mean?”

She shrugged. A mischievous smile lit her face. "I have no idea. I’ve always wanted to say it.”

I shook my head. "Sit down and put on your seatbelt.”

After triple checking I wasn’t about to cause a five-car pileup, I pulled away from the curb and headed toward Laguna Hills.

Had we known about the pileup we were about to encounter, we might have thought twice about glamping under the stars for a week and stayed home instead.



Chapter Two

WE ROLLED TO a stop at the park ranger’s station. Our massive RV dwarfed the park office to dollhouse size.

"I’m telling you, this is the wrong place. Look at it. It’s brown. Dead. This is not glamorous.” Betty sucked in a deep breath through her nose. "Gag. It even smells like death.”

Earthy. Dusty. A faint lingering scent of campfire smoke clung to the air. But in no way did it smell like death.

She’d been convinced we were heading in the wrong direction when I didn’t hang a right on El Toro Road. I’d explained I was not about to drive a forty-one foot motor coach through the middle of Laguna Hills. I didn’t care about shaving ten minutes off the route. I cared about getting us there in one piece.

That said, Betty was right about one thing—it was far from glamor­ous. California was smack dab in the middle of the worst drought in history. I expected a brownish landscape. I didn’t expect a vast dry can­yon with a smattering of sycamore shade trees and cacti clusters.

I wasn’t much for dirt and dust either, but what made me want to turn the bus around and head home was the big brown sign that read, "Warning! Mountain Lion Country. A Risk!”

Where the hell’s bells were we? I thought I’d left the big cats back in Texas.

The park ranger strolled toward the RV. I rolled down the window.

"Good morning, ladies. What can I do for ya?” His tenor voice shot into the vehicle like he was about to spring a joke on us any second. I guess the punch line was welcome to Laguna’s version of Death Valley.

"We’re here for the ARL event. Betty Foxx and guest, Melinda Langston.”

With his head down, Ranger Elliott, according to the name tag sewn on his drab green uniform, pawed through multiple pages of paper clamped in a wrinkled mess on the clipboard he held. "Do you ladies have dogs with you?” He never looked up. Just kept mauling through his lists.

"Two. We’ve already provided licensing and vaccination informa­tion to the ARL.”

He made a couple of notes on his paperwork, then looked up. "Take the first road to the left and follow the signs.” His brown eyes hinted at some unspoken joke as he handed me a packet of papers. "You can’t miss it.” The last part he’d said with a hint of sarcasm. The whole interaction totally threw me. I wondered what it was all about.

"About that sign,” I started. He looked in the direction I pointed. "Are there really mountain lions here? Is this safe for the dogs?”

Betty unfastened her seat belt and lurched toward me. I leaned back just in time as she stretched across me, sticking her head out the win­dow. "Forget the dogs, what about us? Am I going to get dragged out of my rig in the middle of the night?”

He jutted his chin. All humor and sarcasm evaporated into the warm air. "Ma’am, your dogs will be safe as long as you keep them on a leash and stay in the area specifically marked for your event. There is one marked trail for your group. All other trails are off limits. If you’re caught on those trails with your pet, you’ll be asked to leave. No excep­tions. You’re more likely to encounter a rattlesnake than you will a mountain lion.”

"I hate snakes,” Betty and I said simultaneously.

"Don’t forget to pick up after your dog. Just because this is the out­doors, it doesn’t mean you can leave your pet’s waste. By doing so, you’d upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem at the park.” Once he fin­ished his lecture, he tipped his hat, turned his back, and returned to his shack.

I was offended. Doubly offended. First, he called me "ma’am.” I was barely thirty. Second, he assumed he needed to explain the need for me to clean up after my dog.

Betty grumbled, returning to her seat. "I didn’t like that guy the mi­nute I saw him. He’s got small eyes.”

I tossed the papers to Betty. "What does that have to do with any­thing?”

"It’s a fact. Most serial killers have small eyes.”

"You’re making that up.”

"Maybe. But you thought about it for a minute.” Her mer­lot-colored eyebrows bobbed up and down.

I stared at her for a couple of seconds. "Ranger Elliott has an atti­tude, but he’s not a killer.”

"If he goes all Friday the Thirteenth on us, remember I called it first.”

"If that happens, we have bigger issues than you being right.” I put the RV in drive and pulled away from Ranger Bad Attitude.

Great, not only did we have to keep an eye out for mountain lions, but snakes as well. This day just kept getting better. Not.

We followed the paved road for half a mile. The hillside was noth­ing but brown dead grass and dirt, with a smattering of dull green shrubby trees. I was beginning to get worried. Betty, on the other hand, was ready to abandon ship.

"We’ve been had,” she huffed.

We turned a corner and suddenly it was like we were characters in the movie The Wizard of Oz. You know that part when the movie changes from black and white to color? We were seeing it in real life. I don’t know how they’d managed, but someone had laid lush thick sod in the middle of a four hundred yard semicircle of dry, dusty ground, transform­ing the landscape from sprawling dirt to plush green grass. Seriously, this grass was barefoot worthy.

A mix of RVs and large white canopy tents staked their claim around us. Planters spilling over with vibrant flowers were placed at each campsite. White Christmas lights were wrapped around tent poles, and paper lanterns were strung between the sleeping quarters, with multi- colored flags hanging from the tent ropes.

I’m not going to say it was breathtaking, but the kaleidoscope of col­ors was a striking contrast to the brown wasteland. I sighed heavily, relieved I wouldn’t be glamping it up in a dirt bowl.

"That’s amazing!” Betty shot up. Or at least she tried to; her seatbelt yanked her back against the seat with a loud thwack. "It’s a mirage.”

A handful of people and dogs milled around the open grass area. They seemed to be enjoying themselves; the dogs were playing, and their owners smiled as they gestured toward the RV and tent sites.

"Why would you be hallucinating? It’s the camp.”

The heavy canvas sides of all the tents were pulled back, revealing hardwood floors, thick red Persian rugs, and king-sized beds with fresh linens. Vivid colored throw pillows and Moroccan lanterns strategically littered the floor.

"Why didn’t you sign up for one of those?” I asked.

"How was I supposed to know the tent would be just as swanky as the RV? Besides, you weren’t even coming, so you don’t get a vote. Pull in and let’s get out.”

"Hang on. What’s our camping number? It’s on the paperwork Ranger Bad Attitude gave us.”

Betty rustled through the paper. "Twenty-three.”

That was easy enough to find; there were five empty spots left, and ours was right on the end. I backed us up and pulled onto the long slab of dirt meant to be our camping site.

And here I’d thought Betty had overdone it with the size of the RV she’d rented, but from the look of the other campers, ours was on the small size. I put the RV in park, and set the emergency brake.

I looked at Betty. "Now what?”

"What do you mean, now what? We get out, snoop around those tents, and find out when we eat.”

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I was all about food. I loved a good roasted hot dog, broiled fish, and baked potatoes. But even I knew you couldn’t just park the motorhome without some final touches.

"Don’t we need to level this thing? What about our water, waste, elec­tricity? You got the rundown. What do we do? How do we hook it up?”

"I didn’t pay attention to any of that once I knew there’d be some­one here to do it for me. Come on.”

I rested my head against the steering wheel. Why? Why did I do this to myself?

While Betty grabbed the leashes, I double-checked that I had the cookbook foreword I’d thrown together at the last minute. The enve­lope was right where I’d tucked it inside the duffle bag. I know I was being obsessive, but I couldn’t help myself. I was so close to ending this whole sordid affair. Pun intended.

Betty handed me Missy’s leash. I slipped my crossover bag over my head and Betty grabbed her straw handbag.

"Are you going to carry that around all day?” I asked. It was big and looked heavy.

She clutched her bag against her chest. "A woman of my experience is never caught without her handbag.”

Well, all righty then. I guess she was carrying her purse.

We all tumbled out of the RV, the dogs especially eager to explore. I closed the door behind us and locked it, slipping the key in my bag.

"Let’s find the program director. What’d you say his name was?”

"Hudson Jones. Nice guy. You can’t miss him. He’s a cutie patootie for a short guy. Wears a tan fedora and khakis.”

"I’m just curious. Do you judge all men by how good-looking they are?”

"Not at all,” she deadpanned.

I waited for the smart-alecky comment to follow up her denial, but she silently returned my stare.

"Just so we’re clear. I don’t believe you,” I said.

We followed the stone pathway to the opposite end of the camp to­ward the largest canvas tent, with an oak sign out front that read, "Head­quarters.” Our fellow campers called out boisterous greetings at our odd-looking foursome. We had to be the talk of camp: the tall lady and short bulldog, and the senior lady with the drooling St. Bernard puppy. We definitely stood out.

Missy was happy to walk at a normal pace. Raider, on the other hand, wanted to take the campground by storm. I had to hand it to Betty; she was doing a decent job of keeping him under control. Her time with Caro had paid off.

A set of four oversized blue paisley planters filled with snapdragons and chrysanthemums stood guard at the tent entrance. The heavy canvas doors of the headquarters tent were pulled back in an invitation to enter. Betty and Raider charged inside; Missy and I followed close behind. The dogs found a line of stainless steel bowls of water and immediately be­gan to sample each one.

Standing before us was an average-looking guy, of average height and average build, wearing khakis and a tan button-down shirt. His name was not Average Joe. He was Hudson Jones. And he was not short.

"Welcome, ladies.” He pushed back his felt fedora and blinked dark black eyes. "How was your trip?”

"Longer than necessary.” Betty shot me an exasperated look.

"It was fine. Is there someone who can help us with our rental RV? Neither of us know how to hook up the water or electricity.”

"Sure, sure. Asher’s out there somewhere. He’d be happy to help you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. "That’s too bad no one showed you that before you left the RV lot.”

Betty had the decency to look sheepish. "I may not have been pay­ing as close attention as I should have been.”

He chuckled. "Short attention span?”

"You could say that,” I said dryly.

"Let’s talk about today. What are the plans? I heard there’s going to be a s’mores feast tonight.” Betty rubbed her hands together. Raider made his way to her side and laid down. Missy continued to sniff around the water bowls. She was looking for food.

"That’s right. We’ve got a couple of fun events for the dogs as well. At one o’clock, we’ll start the games. We also have a spa. If you’d like to pamper yourself and your pet, you can sign up for massages and facials. There’s also a group outing at three o’clock. We’ll be taking a mile walk with our furry friends. Chase, our camp butler, will be around to antici­pate your needs and providing you with beverages and snacks.” His grand delivery reminded me of a game-show host.

"Sounds like fun. I was wondering if Addison Rae has arrived yet?” I asked.

"The chef? She’s in the kitchen prepping. Do you know her?” His quizzical expression made me think I’d caught him off guard.

"Cookie got Addison the job,” Betty chimed in.

"I didn’t get her the job. I recommended her. And it’s Mel, not Cookie.”

"Gosh, you’re the owner of the Bow Wow Boutique.”

I offered a lame smile. "That’s me.” I don’t think I’d ever heard a grown man say "gosh” before. I didn’t know if it was sweet or creepy.

"Thanks for providing the prizes.” He pointed to a large cardboard box behind him. "That was a heck of a great gesture.”

He thrust his hand toward me. I shook it, feeling guilty that he was ex­cited about a donation I knew nothing about. Judging by the size of the box, Betty had been very generous.

I looked at Betty. "I hadn’t realized we provided the prizes.”

"Did I forget to mention that? You know my memory isn’t what it used to be. Short attention span. Speaking of forgetting, I have some­thing for you.” She patted the oversized pocket on her chest. "Remind me to give it to you later.”

It was probably a dried apple ring. I’d seen her stuffing her pockets with them before we’d left the RV.

About Betty’s memory—it was fine. Until she didn’t want it to be. I turned my attention back to Hudson. "I’m glad we could help. I’m look­ing forward to seeing what we donated.” I ended on a light laugh, hoping he’d realize I wasn’t upset with him. "This is Betty Foxx. She’s the one who put the donation in motion. And these are our dogs, Missy and Raider.”

"I’m Hudson, or Hud if you like, the program director. If you have any questions about what we’re doing, find me. Don’t be surprised if you see the media around. We got word late last night that Channel 5 is sending a reporter to the event.”

I tried not to show my dismay. "Callum MacAvoy?”

Why couldn’t he keep his perfectly shaped nose out of my business? I know, I know. I’m the one who told him about Addison in the first place. But really, why couldn’t he have conducted that interview last week? Damn procrastinator.

He nodded with a smile. "That’s him. If you see him, I hope you’ll grant him a short interview.”

Not on his life. "I’d be happy to. We won’t keep you any longer. I’m sure we’ll see you around.”

"I’ll find Asher and ask him to give you a hand.” Hudson Jones tapped his fedora. "Don’t forget, one o’clock for the food toss. Three o’clock for the trail walk.”

"Wouldn’t miss it.” I was normally a horrible liar, but since Addison’s appearance in my life, I was becoming alarmingly good at it.

I should have taken that as a sign of things to come.

WE DIDN’T NEED Asher after all. Once we left headquarters, the other RV campers were waiting for us and offered to help us connect to the utilities, and show us which buttons to push to extend our four (yes, you read that right) slide-outs. Apparently, correct camping etiquette is to introduce yourself to your neighbors, offer assistance to those with less experience, and give tours of your RV. Personally, I think they were just nosey, but hey, so was I. I’m the last person to judge.

There’s even a "Golden Rule.” Yeah, it’s the same rule my parents taught me—"Do unto others.” But in this community, it seemed to be adhered to religiously. We heard story after story about saving some­one’s awning in a windstorm, tucking lawn chairs inside when it rained, or rolling up car windows. All to be a part of a greater solution rather than a perpetual problem. Why isn’t that the ideal in any community?

Like all good neighbors, no one outstayed their welcome. Betty and I promised to stop by each person’s site later and take a tour of their motor home or glamping tent.

I needed to find a way to ditch Betty for a short time so I could de­liver the cookbook foreword to Addison, and get my letters in return. Luckily, Betty and I had met a charming couple—Veronica Scutaro and her pooch Harry, a Japanese Chin.

Veronica seemed like a friendly fellow camper, and a possible new customer for Bow Wow Boutique. Although she lived in Dana Point, she hadn’t really shopped at the local merchants in downtown Laguna. Betty was about to change that. She’d never met a pet lover she couldn’t convert to a Bow Wow fanatic. God bless her love for retail.

Harry was a black-and-white puff-ball clown. He loved attention. He was adorable, hopping on all fours like a bunny, begging for a treat. It was obvious he had his human wrapped around his tiny paw. Betty shanghaied Veronica after everyone else left, happily chatting her up about toenail pawlish and chew toys.

Missy wasn’t much for long walks. As a bulldog, she easily over­heated, so letting her nap in the air-conditioned RV made her happy and kept her safe. I promised her we would play the food toss game that afternoon. She promised me she’d stay awake for most of it. What can I say, the girl enjoyed naps as much as she liked food.

I grabbed the envelope from my bag, folded it in half longways, and shoved it in the back pocket of my True Religion jeans. I tugged my T-shirt down, ensuring I’d covered the evidence. After tossing my purse into a bedroom nightstand, I tucked my cell phone in my front pocket.

I slipped past Veronica and Betty who were chilling on lawn chairs under the awing. Veronica was telling Betty about a missing butterfly bracelet that she believed to have been stolen a few weeks ago. There was no doubt in my mind Betty was concocting a scheme to somehow recover it.

I nodded hello to a number of my new neighbors as I trudged across the cushy grass in my Merrell hiking shoes. I preferred my motorcy­cle boots, but the hiking shoes were a comfortable substitute.

The kitchen was located in the middle of the campground. It was actu­ally a large yurt with a round wooden platform, canvas walls, and a raised rooftop that included a domed skylight. Perfect for stargazing at night. That was, if one found themselves huddled in the kitchen area.

I was about to walk inside when my cell phone rang.

"Hello?” I answered without looking at the caller ID.

"Hi, darlin’.” It was my mama, sounding all sweetness and light.

"This is a bad time.”

She sighed heavily in my ear. "It’s always a bad time. Especially lately. Stop being so contrary, it will give you wrinkles. Speaking of Grey, are you two back together yet?”

Since we weren’t talking about my ex, I ignored her attempt to pry into my love life. Or the lack thereof. I tried to find something humor­ous about the whole "Mama” situation. Instead, I got nothing but a bad mood, and it was all Mama’s fault. That’s not exactly fair, but it was the truth.

When I was twenty, rumor had it my mama had sex with a judge in or­der for me to final in the Miss America pageant. Mama referred to it as The Incident. At the time, I didn’t want to believe it. Even after all these years, I’d held out hope that she’d just let me believe the worst about her because she liked the drama. I loved my mama, but she was a martyr at heart. To her, any attention was good attention.

Today, the truth would come out. And my mama was tucked away in our family home, unaware of the drama unfolding almost fifteen hundred miles away. It was better that way.

"Melinda Sue, are you still there?”

I stepped away from the circular tent. "I have to go. Love ya, Mama.” I returned the phone to my pocket and took a deep breath to regroup my scattered emotions.

Shoulders squared, head held high, I entered the lion’s den.

In the far back, Addison stood behind a long butcher-block table, prepping for the day’s meals next to a tall, dark-haired man with tattoo sleeves. Both were dressed in plaid short-sleeved shirts, jeans, and match­ing black aprons.

The yurt was filled with tension. I guess Addison brought out that trait in most people she had close contact with. On the surface, Addison was a pretty girl. Unfortunately, her personality was as toxic as a House­wivesreunion episode.

She pulled out a black notebook from the large pocket of her apron and flipped the pages, then rattled off a list of ingredients.

"I thought tonight was the lamb kabobs?” The man’s voice sounded strained.

"As head chef, I changed my mind. We’re having lamb stew. You can make kabobs tomorrow. Stew is a better choice for the first night. We can cook on the open fire in front of the group. It will add to the experi­ence.”

I grudgingly agreed with her assessment. I made a mental note she’d said "head chef” and not "pet chef.” Seemed she’d managed to wrangle herself a promotion. Addison was probably a fine cook. I’d even give her the title of "chef.” She just sucked at being a human being.

Tattoo Man slammed a cookie sheet on the butcher-block counter. "Stew is not a gourmet meal. Besides, we don’t have the proper ingredi­ents. They weren’t on your list for the shopping trip.”

"As the sous-chef, it’s your responsibility to anticipate what I need. Figure it out or I’ll replace you. I’d suggest you make a list and find a way to get to the store.” An ugly sneer formed on her face. "I heard Pepper Maddox is camping with us. She’d snatch up your job in a heartbeat.”

Addison was about to unleash more venom, but when she looked up and saw me standing in the doorway, she pressed her lips together.

The sneer quickly transformed into a smirk. "Melinda. You decided to come after all.”

There’s nothing scarier than someone with a screw loose.

"You knew I would.”

"I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

"Just long enough to hear we’re having stew for dinner.”

Without breaking eye contact with me, she dismissed the sous-chef. "Redmond, start peeling the onions and potatoes out back. Be careful with the onions, they’re dangerous for dogs.”

"I’m fully aware of what the dogs can eat.” Disgust clouded his eyes.

I couldn’t blame him. I hated her too. Addison waited until he dis­ap­peared before she said, "Did you bring it?”

"It’s the only reason I’m here.” I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and held it against my chest. "Did you bring the letters?”

"Of course. But I don’t have them with me right this second. I thought you wanted to keep the letters quiet? Was I wrong?”

I maintained a neutral expression and an even tone. "I want to get this over with. The sooner the better.”

"I can’t just leave, Melinda. I have a job to do. You, of all people, can understand that.”

"I don’t care. You’ve strung this out long enough. Let’s go to your RV or wherever you’re staying and get my letters.”

Her eyebrows disappeared under her blue bangs. "Don’t you mean your mother’s letters?”

I sucked in a breath and forced myself to stay calm. "Right,” I said through clenched teeth.

"To my father.” Addison brushed her hands on her apron, in no big hurry to get moving. "I’ve read them, you know. Each one. More than once. You can’t blame me. At first, I thought they were letters between my parents.”

My stomach churned, imagining what my mother may have written to her lover. Not only had she had an affair, she’d penned a written proclamation of her love for someone other than her husband. What the hell was she thinking? I didn’t want to read the letters, and I didn’t want anyone else to read them either. Especially my daddy.

I shook my head. "You’re going to give me those letters like you promised or I’ll find them myself.”

Hudson Jones traipsed into the tent, interrupting us. "Hey, Addison. How are you coming with those sweet potato chips for the Toss Across Challenge?” He skidded to a halt right next to me. "Gosh, sorry. I didn’t see you. Mel, right?”

I tucked the envelope in my back pocket. "That’s all right.” Lordy, I hope he hadn’t heard me sound like a bad imitation of an angry mob wife.

He pushed back his hat and looked at Addison. "The game starts in an hour. Are you ready?”

"Melinda, why don’t we meet up later? In the meantime, you should relax. This could be a fun weekend if you let it.”

It galled me to no end that she sounded like the calm and reasona­ble person in the conversation. I ignored her advice about unwinding. "When and where?”

"After the game. We can take a walk along the trail. We’ll meet at the first resting point.”

Privacy. I hated to admit it, but it was a good idea. Betty wouldn’t be hovering around, wanting to know what I was doing. Random people wouldn’t barge into the middle of our tête-à-tête.

"Two o’clock.” I spun around and stomped out of the tent past the sous-chef.

"I’ll get them back. One way or another,” I muttered.

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