Tina Langley carefully buckled her seat belt and settled back for the jet's descent. The other passengers around her showed no strain of the short flight, but this wasn't true of Tina. Her hazel eyes showed traces of weariness, and her delicately chiseled lips drooped at the corners.
My job is at stake. My reputation is on the line. My whole way of life is threatened -- and I'm leaving Maine to fight back.
She pulled out a compact from her tooled‑leather bag, and checked to see that at least her curly cap of hair wasn't drooping. Tina hadn't seen her friend Jacqueline Myers‑Jackie for short‑for a whole year, and she wanted to look her best. After a final pat at the tresses of brunette, she closed the compact, put it away, and forced herself to enjoy the landing view from her window.
Soon the wheels of the commuter plane gently touched down at Boston's Logan International Airport. The waters of New England's Atlantic coastline shimmered for a few seconds, to be replaced by the quickly speeding concrete runway.
"Please wait until the plane comes to a complete stop before unfastening your seatbelts," said the flight attendant, his uniform still creased from the flight from Maine to Massachusetts. "The temperature is a crisp September fifty-eight degrees. Your luggage can be picked up at carousel two. Thank‑you for flying with us." His routine speech finished, he went forward to prepare for disembarking.
"I hope our luggage will be waiting. Last time I took this flight it ended up in Connecticut," said the businesswoman next to Tina. The woman smiled, a shared-traveler's moment.
Tina smiled back. She'd been politely friendly throughout the flight, but carefully kept to herself. Worry had ruined this trip, or any wish to socialize.
The pet store my brother David and I own is being sabotaged -- and my own best friend, Jackie, might be working for the culprits.
She undid her belt, and stood up, gracefully working her shoulders to ease some of the stiffness from them.
"Do you need any help getting your luggage? I could easily give you a hand." Her other seatmate, a male, looked at her attractive frame with more than a wish to be helpful evident in his eyes.
"No, thank‑you, I'm being met," Tina said. She was single, but wasn't looking for romance.
The man recognized the dismissal in her voice, and moved to the front of the plane along with the others. Tina slung her carry-on bag over her shoulder, and carefully made her way to the door, down the ramp, and out into the lobby. The airport terminal felt chilly. She shivered as she searched the crowds for Jackie. Tina had written to her earlier, and sent along her flight time.
Who would ever think my old school chum could be involved with a puppy mill? I do business with the dog kennel that employs her, and suddenly my own business is at risk. Does Jackie know? Are we still friends? That's what I'm here to find out -- by pretending to need a new job with her boss.
Tina spotted Jackie's familiar face. She waved her hand above the crowd, and Jackie waved back in recognition as the two women moved toward each other.
Jackie happily hugged Tina by way of greeting. “Tina, is it really you? It's been so long!"
"Yes, it's really me."
"You haven't changed a bit!" Jackie's face filled with warmth as Tina returned her hug.
"I hope I have, for the better, anyway." Have you, Jackie?
"I can't believe that we're actually going to work together."
"Only for the summer, remember? And that's if I get the job."
"You'll get the job," Jackie assured her. “Let's go get your bags, and I'll tell you all about it in the car."
After retrieving her single piece of checked luggage, Tina settled back into the luxurious upholstery of the car. “Oh, that feels good. Yours?"
"My employer's, but never mind him. Now tell me what made you decide to come here for the fall? What about your pet store?"
"I guess it all started a little over a year ago…” What do I tell my friend, and what do I hold back? "A major pet store chain began buying out all the independent stores. My brother and I were approached by Chuck Warner with a bid for our store. Naturally we didn't want to sell."
"Of course not. You and David worked hard to make your business a success."
"We did, and we told them we weren't selling. That's when the nasty rumors started." Tina's voice grew solemn. “At first we ignored them. We knew we sold quality animals. But then our regular suppliers were bought out by the pet store chain. Our livestock started dwindling, and David and I couldn't find new suppliers."
"Oh, Tina, no…"
"It gets worse. When we looked elsewhere, it seemed as if the only puppies or kittens offered for sale to us were sickly. I suspect deliberate sabotage."
"Surely not the major pet store chain?"
"I can't tell, although the timing is suspicious. I do know profits are falling and our customers are going elsewhere. Whether it's the chain or not, some kennel owner is also in on it, and using over-breeding to put us out of business. I can't let that happen. These people need to be stopped."
I hate puppy mills -- illegal, substandard places where puppies are bred for profit in tight quarters with little food and even less love. And Jackie's boss could be involved.
"Tina, I'm so sorry! You and David always did so well with your store."
"Not anymore. That's one of the reasons I'm here. To make a few extra bucks to help the business." David can handle what's left of it without me. “And to scout out some new pet suppliers for our store."
Jackie shook her head as she maneuvered the car through tricky airport traffic. “At least you won't have to worry about my employer -- White Birches Kennels."
"I hope not, because one way or another, I intend to discover who's at the bottom of this." Tina's soft voice filled with determination.
"Good for you! Anyone deliberately selling sick animals belongs in prison. I'll do anything I can to help."
"Actually," Tina said, "There is something you can do."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd keep the story of my business problems private. If your boss knew about my pet store, I might not get this job, and I need the money. I don't want to share my personal problems with a stranger." Or tip him off before I get enough evidence to put him out of business.
"No problem," said Jackie. “You have my word."
Tina breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. You know, as much as I hated leaving the store, I'm glad I'm here. When you told me about this job opening up and how they needed someone at the kennels, I had to take the chance. I hope there isn't too much competition for the job, or I'll be flying home again tomorrow."
"Relax! I talked to my boss -- his name's Eric Brandt, remember, and gave you a good recommendation. You're the only one who flew in for the interview, so you're the last candidate he'll be seeing. Think you can handle it? The job, that is. Being a kennel worker is a big step down from managing your own pet store."
Tina smiled with self-confidence. “David and I grew up with dogs, which is why we went into the pet shop business. I know all about their care, grooming, and training. And we have to muck out our kennels just like Eric does his. The thought of being outdoors all autumn is irresistible."
As is finding out if White Birches IS running a puppy mill. One of the sick Irish setters sent to me had White Birch Kennel numbers tattooed in the ear.
"Hope you still think so after a week or two," Jackie said. "Eric lives out in the country. Like I told you, it's very isolated. Any handler would have to live on the residence."
"Fine with me. I worried about finding a place to stay." I don't have that much money to spare -- I used most of it for this plane ticket.
"Well, your worries are over now."
"If I get the job."
"When you get the job," Jackie corrected.
They were well out of the city now, and Jackie turned onto a rural road leading up into the foothills. “It's really beautiful at Eric's," she said. “As his accountant, I don't get outside as much as you will, but the acres of woods are so beautiful this time of year. I love it."
"So do I. I've been to this part of the country before. Mom and Dad took me and David on vacation to the Hamptons when we were kids."
"Then you'll feel right at home. Did you bring anything else besides that one suitcase? You'll need winter clothing before too long. Septembers around here don't always stay this warm."
Tina's lips twitched with amusement. To listen to Jackie talk, one would think Tina was from the Sahara. Yet she'd been born and raised in New England's Maine herself.
"In fact, I did. I've arranged to have my car and things delivered right to the doorstep if I get hired."
"White Birches raise some of the best Irish setters in the country. Eric makes a comfortable living showing, breeding, training and selling them. Tina, his dogs are good. In tip-top shape."
"I'm anxious to see that for myself." In more ways than one…
"You will." Jackie took her eyes off of the road to steal a quick glance at Tina's face. "Anything else you want to know?"
Tina hesitated at first before answering. “You know how I'm having my car and other things sent out if I'm hired? Well, they aren't all that I have coming tomorrow. I'll be bringing my dog, too." My evidence of a once-sick puppy from White Birches. How I managed to keep that dog alive I'll never know. He goes where I go, and my lawyer has all his vet records under lock and key.
"Eric's strictly an Irish setter man," Jackie warned.
"My dog's an Irish setter." A puppy from these very kennels that was shipped to my store so underweight and full of cuts and bruises, the vet wanted to put him down. I'm so glad I refused to let him. I made a four-legged friend for life. Tina's eyes filled with anger at the injustice in the world. “I named him Brandy because his coat is the color of the drink. If I get the job, David will have someone drive him and my car out here. You said Eric has acres of land for his dogs. Surely he has room for one more."
Jackie bit her lip. "You'll have to take it up with Eric. We may call him by his first name, but don't let that fool you. He's the boss of White Birches, and he runs it with a tight fist."
If I find out he's running a puppy mill and selling neglected dogs like Brandy to pet shop owners like me, I'll see his fists in handcuffs, Tina thought.
"Settle back and enjoy the ride," Jackie continued. “We'll be home before dinner."
Tina drew in an appreciative breath as Jackie carefully turned the vehicle onto the private drive. The road was flanked by stretches of open grass, with groups of trees that charmingly allowed the house and kennels to be viewed gradually. Only when the car traveled past the drive's last winding curve did the residence become completely visible.
"Isn't it? Come on," said Jackie as she stopped and parked the car. "I'll show you around."
Jackie led the way. The house was constructed out of wood and rock to softly blend into the surroundings. Tina noticed the stacks of a stone fireplace, the chimney rising above the two-story dwelling.
"I'm back!" Jackie sang out.
Tina wondered if living away from the mainstream of civilization forced people to become more intimate with others, whether they wanted it or not. I'd prefer less intimacy, considering the secrets I'm keeping.
"So I see, Jackie." An elderly woman materialized from the recesses of the house to show them inside.
Jackie made the introductions. “This is Louise. She's Eric's aunt, and keeps house here."
"Welcome to White Birches." Louise's cheerful blue eyes matched her welcoming smile.
"Pleased to meet you. What a lovely place you keep!" Tina's gaze roamed around the cozy, attractive surroundings.
"Why, thank-you! I do my best, and we're all happy here, especially my nephew. Eric wanted to see you both as soon as you arrived."
"So soon?" Jackie exclaimed. “Before Tina even freshens up?"
"It's okay. Where shall I put these?" Tina asked, lifting up a suitcase and her carry-on, one in each hand.
"I'll take them," the housekeeper said. “Jackie, Eric's in the den, so would you be a dear and led the way?"
"Of course," answered Jackie.
"Then I'll put these upstairs in Tina's room," Louise said.
"Won't those be too heavy?" Tina worried. “I can do it."
"Heaven's, no! Despite this gray hair, I'm as strong as a horse. No help is needed, thank-you." After lifting the luggage, Louise set off for the stairs with a healthy stride. Tina watched the woman easily ascend.
Jackie grinned. “She's a lovely woman, though a bit set in her ways. Once you know her better, you'll love her as much as we do. Now come on, no stalling. Follow me."
Tina recognized the truth in Jackie's words; she was stalling, and with some anxiety she followed Jackie into the den. Going from owner and manager of my own store to blue-collar labor -- I hope I can pull this off.
"Eric, Tina's here," Jackie announced to the figure seated at the desk. “She's all yours." At that Jackie gave Tina a tiny nudge, whispered, "Good luck," and left.
Tina fidgeted nervously with her turquoise ring -- a gift from her brother -- while waiting for her interviewer to finish up his paperwork. Finally he capped his pen, laid it down, and rose, offering his hand to her.
"Hello, Ms Langley, I'm Eric Brandt. Please, sit down. Did you have a pleasant flight?"
Tina had all she could do to prevent herself from stumbling. The man before her was so attractive it took her breath away.
His sharply chiseled nose and chin were softened by warm blue eyes much like his aunt's. His mouth hinted at humor, in spite of its straight lines. The hair was a glossy brown thatch framing a tanned forehead and the worry lines habitual to any successful businessman.
It's bad enough I have to play spy. But does my enemy have to look so friendly?
"Are you feeling all right?" Eric asked. His tall frame seemed to fill the room he came around from behind the desk to approach her.
Tina managed a smile and sat. “I'm fine. I'll feel better once this interview is over." I haven't had a job interview since high school...
"Tell you what. Let's do this a little less formally. I'll have Louise to fix us something to eat in the kitchen. In the meantime, why don't you check out the guestroom? It's the first room at the right. We can chat while you're eating."
"Really, you don't have to go through all that trouble," she said. It's not as if I've been hired yet. No sense settling in.
"It's no trouble." He offered her his hand, and Tina let him help her up.
Eric walked her to the stairs. “I know it's getting late, but are you up to a quick tour of the kennels after a quick bite? I want to show you around."
"I'd like that." I could see what shape your kennels are in.
"Good." His voice suddenly changed to employer crispness. “We'll be out among the dogs, so wear something suitable."
Tina nodded, and then hurried upstairs to change, anxious to make a good impression and continue her mission.
"Feel better?" Eric asked a short time later.
Tina nodded, her mouth full with Louise' homemade navy bean soup and freshly baked bread. Tina's face and hands smelled faintly of her favorite rose soap, the only touch of non-practicality amidst her jeans and work blouse. Her cheeks were now their usual faint pink, attractively framed by newly brushed strands of brunette. Eric joined her at the table with a soda.
"Your aunt is a fantastic cook."
"She is. Up to a few questions?" Eric asked, his eyes softening at her hearty enjoyment of the meal and praise for Louse.
"Shoot," Tina said. Here goes spy test number one.
Eric began speaking, his voice once more crisp and to the point. "One of my dogs comes back from the woods limping. What would you do?"
That's easy enough for a pet storeowner like me. “Setters are notorious for picking up burrs and foxtails in their feet. The feathered hair in the pads sucks them right in. I'd check in between the toes and around the pads for debris." She took another bite of bread.
"One of the dogs needs eye drops. How would you give it?"
"I'd straddle him and put in the drops from behind while holding his muzzle closed. That way, he can't see the drops and panic until they're practically in." So far the questions posed no problems.
Eric wasn't finished. “Does one ever strike a dog?"
Tina frowned. “I never have. Proper training and proper correction doesn't require it. Just like with children, physical violence usually does more harm than good."
Tina refrained herself from tapping her spoon at the bowl. Mata Hari I'm not! Eric continued with his questions.
"You see a dog that’s losing weight. His coat is dull, he's off his food, and is listless. What then?"
She smiled at the simplicity of the question. “I'd have him checked for internal parasites."
"What would you do with an animal with a fever that's run for four days, has watery eyes, and refuses to eat?" Eric asked, his eyes intent upon hers.
Tina wouldn't be fooled. “First, I'd isolate the animal. But I would never try to diagnose any animal with those symptoms. They're indicative of too many possible problems. And it wouldn't be four days before I got him to a vet. I'd have him treated if he hadn't started to improve by the third day, possibly even the second."
Despite her tasty meal, Tina noticed he seemed satisfied so far.
"One last question. You accidentally drop your car keys into a pen with a female who has just had a litter of pups. What do you do then?"
"Call a cab," she said decisively. “It would take someone with less brains or more nerve than I have to retrieve them."
At that Eric laughed aloud. Tina started at the attractive picture he made. It was very distracting. I wonder if Mata Hari ever had this problem?
"You score one hundred percent, Tina. Anyone crazy enough to go near a protective new mother might need a doctor to stitch him back together." His eyes shone with appreciation of her answer. “You still have to pass the final test, though. All the right answers in the world won't help if you don't have a way with animals. Finished?" He watched Tina spoon the last drops of soup from the bottom of the bowl.
"Yes. This was delicious! Sure beats airline food."
"Be sure to tell Louise. She thrives on praise. Come on, then, follow me."
Tina placed her dishes in the sink, and they left the room through the kitchen side door. He grabbed two windbreakers off hooks and tossed her one. Tina pulled it on as they stepped outside while keeping up with his quick strides across the open expanse separating the kennels and the house.
"It's about a two-minute walk," Eric said, slowing his pace to match hers. Tina zipped her jacket against the evening autumn breeze. “This way I'm far enough away from the job to relax at night, but close enough so I can hear if something is wrong."
Tina was beginning to see that pet storeowners didn't walk nearly as much as landowners did, for it was apparent Eric was used to vigorous walking. Tina supposed she would be that way before too long herself. She was fit and healthy -- unlike the sickly puppies her shop had received from this very kennel. She didn't know what to expect.
"Here we are." Eric spoke loudly above the noise of welcoming barking, which became ever louder and less friendly at the scent of a stranger. “Quiet!" Eric ordered. The noise level dropped somewhat, although some rebels continued their cries.
"You'll have to get used to each other sooner or later. Tina, meet the crew."
Her eyes opened wide with pleasure at the many beautiful animals behind the chain-linked fence dog kennels. The telltale red that identified the Irish setter was visible in multiple shades and long, feathery plumes. The cages were clean, with sheltered, spacious room in the open front, and heated enclosed shelters with connecting dog doors behind. Strange, this hardly seems like a puppy mill. But it's only the first facility of his I've seen so far. More could be hidden.
"The sun sets early this time of year, so you won't be able to see them well. But I want you to meet someone special."
Tina reluctantly dragged her eyes away from the main group of dogs and watched as Eric carefully opened one larger cage set apart from the others. A mahogany female, quite obviously pregnant, bounded gracefully out despite her size and joyfully put her paws on Eric's chest. He allowed the wet tongue and swishing tail and easily caught her by the collar.
"This is Lady Scarlet Colleen Guinness. Officially, that is. I call her Lady for short. Not very original, I know, but trust me, she's a unique dog nonetheless." Lady calmed down, and Eric gestured for Tina to approach.
"Care to meet your new handler?" Lady hesitantly turned her head, indecisive.
Tina slowly crouched down into a squat seem smaller and less threatening. She began to croon softly to Lady. Lady slowly studied her, the canine brown eyes unsure of her welcome. Tina continued to reassure her, not moving a muscle. Lady approached and sniffed Tina, Eric's hand still wrapped around her collar.
"Aren't you the pretty one? What a good girl, what a pretty Lady. Come on, it's okay." The comforting melodious words flowed from years of habit and experience around animals.
Lady curled her lip with suspicion. Tina held her breath while continuing to speak. Lady paused, then made her decision. Her tail slowly began to wag, her mouth opened to reveal a lolling pink tongue, and with one eager bound Lady slipped Eric's grasp and knocked the crouching Tina onto her knees.
Tina laughed with delight as she fought off Lady's enthusiastic greeting. “Down girl, down!" she commanded. Lady, eager to please, quickly obeyed.
Eric was astounded, surprise evident on his face even in the failing light. "I can't believe it."
"What? She's just a big baby." Standing, Tina giggled again as Lady sat up and planted a slurpy kiss on her hand.
"I brought her out to test you. Lady hates newcomers. I wanted to judge your behavior around dogs under adverse conditions but," Eric whistled. “Her acceptance of you is even better proof of your abilities. Not only that, she even obeys you."
It was now Tina's turn to be surprised. She stroked Lady's silky head. “But she's so gentle! I'll bet she's a favorite with everyone."
"No, except for me, she barely tolerates people. She ignores Louise and Jackie, and growls at Don, my grounds-keeper. That isn't the case with you."
Tina smiled at Lady. "Well, she obviously has good taste." Her tone was light to hide her pleasure at being accepted by Lady, and somehow, it seemed, by Eric.
Lady, tired of being ignored, jumped high to put her paws on Tina's chest.
"Sit, girl! Sit!" Tina commanded, and Lady proudly obeyed, all her attention on Tina. “Maybe you'd better put her inside her kennel. She's pretty excited, and I don't want a pregnant dog over-stressing herself."
Eric regained some of his usual composure. “Why don't you?" he said. Much to his chagrin, at Tina's soft, "Heel," Lady obeyed, and looking every inch the adoring slave, followed Tina straight into the pen.
"I'll be. Lady, you traitor," he said softly. Then he caught Tina's gaze.
"Ms. Langley, you've got yourself a job."
"Where did you receive your training?" Eric asked. They were back inside the warm living room drinking coffee.
"In college I majored in business and minored in zoology. Plus much of what I know about animals I picked up from having dogs of my own. David -- he's my brother -- and I loved animals, and my parents did too. We always had pets around while growing up. We also did odd jobs for the neighbors for extra money, like pet-sitting or walking their dogs."
Tina settled into the plush chair by the living room's roaring fire. Probably the work of Louise, she thought, enjoying the warmth.
"You do seem to know your way around dogs. I'm surprised you don't own a pet right now."
If this wasn't a perfect opening to explain about Brandy, she didn't know what was. “Actually, I -- “She was interrupted by the phone's ringing.
"Excuse me." Eric reached over the richly stained wood end table and picked up the receiver. “Hello? Well, I was wondering when I'd hear from you! Just a minute, Arleen. Hold on." He covered the mouthpiece with one large, capable hand.
"Excuse me, but I need to take this call."
"Of course. I'll go upstairs."
"I like to start work at seven. Louise serves breakfast at six-thirty. It's early but the evenings are dark now, and I like to work the dogs as much as possible."
"No problem." She rose to leave. “Good night, Mr Brandt."
"That's Eric, please," he said, still holding the phone. “See you in the morning."
The sound of his voice talking intimately with Arleen, whoever she was, softly followed Tina up the stairs. It's to be expected, a single man having a girlfriend. Does she know what's going on with these kennels? Could she be a part of it?
Tina awoke the next morning rather unexpectedly to the sound of voices arguing downstairs. She groggily looked at her watch and saw that was barely past five. She turned over to go back to sleep when Jackie burst into the room.
"Tina, you'd better get downstairs and quick. Your dog has just made his grand appearance."
"Oh no," Tina moaned. She blindly moved to throw off her covers, but only succeeded in tangling herself up further. "He wasn't supposed to arrive until this afternoon!"
"Well, he's here now. Here," said Jackie. She threw Tina the jeans and blouse she'd worn briefly the night before. "You'd better get dressed and explain whose dog it is. Eric thinks an error was made in a shipment to his kennels!"
If he checks the ear tattoo I'm dead in the water before I even begin! "Didn't you explain anything to him?" Tina shoved her legs into the jeans then struggled with the blouse.
"Are you kidding?" Jackie grabbed the hairbrush out of Tina's hand. “You look fine. Now get moving!"
Tina staggered down the stairs and called out loud to Eric to get a bearing on his whereabouts. Her dog, detained in a travel cage next to her car's tow-truck driver, recognized her voice, and started wildly barking for his owner. Tina slapped her hand to the railing and ran down the stairs.
"Good morning, Eric," she breathlessly greeted at the front door. She could barely hear herself above the wild barking of the dog and the arguing of the deliveryman.
"Down, boy," she ordered, and Brandy silently dropped to the floor of his cage, his body quivering with excitement. Eric's expression questioned, but Tina turned her attention to the deliveryman.
"Where do I sign?"
"This your dog, lady?" Tina nodded as she signed his clipboard. "You see, buddy? I told you I know how to read an address, and that this dog goes here. You sure know how to give a guy a hard time."
Tina flashed an understanding smile, and he quieted down. “Thanks for getting my car here, and for your early service. I didn't expect Brandy until quite later."
At the sound of his name the animal's ears lifted high on his head. Tina reached into her back pocket, pulled out her wallet, and pressed some bills into his hand to settle her account, plus extra for the tip.
A grin spread across the burly man's face. “Why, thanks, ma'am. At least somebody appreciates me," he said, throwing a meaningful look toward Eric. “Have a nice morning." Then he returned to his towing and delivery truck.
That left Tina with only one confused man instead of two.
"Before I explain anything," she said to Eric, "let me take care of the dog." She deftly opened the latch on the cage, and Brandy came bounding out and up, straight for her chest.
"Sit," Tina quickly said, and Brandy reluctantly checked his leap and sat, his whole body one wriggling mass of excitement. “All right, get it out of your system." The dog instantly broke from command to hurl himself at her, barking and licking her face, and running circles back and forth.
"Brandy!" Tina laughed. “You're going to make yourself dizzy!" At last the dog calmed down and pushed his nose into Tina's hand.
"If you're through, I'd like an explanation," Eric said, his arms folded across his chest.
Tina stroked Brandy's soft head and scratched the sensitive spots behind the ears. “I meant to tell you last night, but I didn't get a chance. Anyway, as you can see, Brandy is my dog. I certainly couldn't leave him behind!"
"I should think not!" Eric's practiced eye sized up the animal before him. “He must be worth a lot of money, judging by the lines he has. Is he a champion?"
"He's papered, but isn't a working dog or show dog like yours. He's just my pet."
Eric looked as if he didn't believe her. “You mean to tell me you haven't showed him?"
"Not at all. He's not even two yet, and he wasn't always this healthy." Tina answered, gaining back her courage. At least I know he hasn't checked the tattoo. “No one wanted him. In fact, the vet wanted to put him down."
"How could someone want to destroy such a beautiful animal?"
"I can't understand it myself."
"But the problem still remains. He can't stay here at the house."
Tina's eyes opened wide.
"Don't you see, Tina? He's an unfixed male. I couldn't have him running around loose. Not only would he fight with my other males, he could impregnate my females. I've worked for years to perfect my dogs by selective breeding. Your dog will have to be kenneled while he's here."
"Since I got him, we've never been separated. Brandy's very devoted to me! He's also very well trained. He'll obey me." Tina spoke quickly as she pleaded her case. “He's never been in a fight as long as I've owned him, and he's been exposed to plenty of other dogs at the…” Pet shop? No, I can't say that. “In the neighborhood. And he's housebroken. I could leave him inside when I couldn't watch him, and when you had females in heat working outside of their kennels."
I don't want to leave my dog. And I might need his protection when I go snooping around looking for illegal puppy mills.
Eric was unconvinced. “He sounds too perfect to me, and I never believed in perfect dogs."
"Let me prove it!" Tina was determined. "Let's head for the kennels. Call out one of your male dogs."
Eric paused, considering, then started for to the kennels, motioning to Tina to follow. She called to Brandy, who heeled closely on command. Eric walked over to one of the end cages and unlatched the door.
He called out, "Here, Prince. Here, boy!" A beautiful Irish setter proudly pranced out, and Tina gasped aloud. The male was in his full maturity, unlike her dog, still young. Eric fondly tousled the big dog's ears, then turned him loose.
"Stand and stay, Brandy," Tina ordered.
Prince came closer to investigate. Brandy stayed motionless. Prince barked out a challenge to the younger dog. Tina's pet ignored him. Only when Prince came too close to Tina were his protective instincts aroused. Brandy's hair rose on his neck as he growled. Prince held his ground as Brandy made no move forward, but a vicious snarl and the threatening curl of Brandy's lips finally caused Eric's male to slowly back away with stiff legs and stiffer dignity.
"Good boy, Brandy. See!" Tina cried triumphantly.
"I commend you on your training," Eric said. “It's against a dog's instinct to ignore the challenge of another male. I don't know about letting him in the house, though."
Tina nodded, picturing to herself the beautiful furnishings of his residence. “I understand. I noticed a little room on the bottom floor. Is it occupied?"
"No, empty. It was the groundskeeper's room before he married."
"It's perfect for me and Brandy. You won't have him tramping around your lovely living room. We'll be right near the kitchen's side door, and there won't be any problem.
"That's a very small room," Eric protested. “I doubt if you'll be as comfortable as you would be upstairs."
"I'd be even less comfortable if I had to give up Brandy, which, incidentally, I would never do. If he went, I'd have to go too, and where else would you find another handler who gets along as well with Lady?" she asked slyly.
Eric's eyes narrowed, but Tina played the innocent as she kept her face blank. Finally Eric smiled, and moved over to stroke Brandy's long neck.
"Welcome to White Birches, boy."
Tina settled comfortably into a pleasurable routine during the next few weeks. She learned Eric had twenty-five dogs, all in various stages of development regarding their training. It was her job to work with the younger animals, and teach them the basic commands. Eric worked with the more complicated aspects of the training, such as the utility and agility work. The dogs needed instruction to retrieve specifically scented objects, and to maneuver obstacles such as A-frames, jumps, and tunnels.
Occasionally Eric allowed Tina to accompany him when he was working with more than one setter, but more often than not she handled the more routine aspects of kennel work. With Eric off in the woods all day, she was able to spend more time investigating.
So far, she couldn't find any evidence of wrongdoing; no trace of inhumane treatment to animals. However, there were no litters of puppies in evidence, so Tina was forced to wait until Lady delivered. Only then would she know for certain how new puppies were handled. She kept in touch with her brother David back at home, and impatiently bided her time.
Still, there were some benefits for her new life. The Massachusetts autumn fully arrived. The forest was a riot of beautiful colors, from golds and oranges and browns to the Irish setter red of the maple trees. She took long hikes when walking the younger dogs, Brandy always near. They both thrived in the outdoors. Brandy's coat was growing long and feathery as protection against the cool autumns. His stamina was greater, and Tina found to her surprise that she also could trek for miles without tiring. Work back home at the pet store frequently left her exhausted.
Besides becoming familiar with White Birches land, she also learned more about the White Birches staff. Tina and Jackie were already on good terms. When checking the books, Tina soon learned that Jackie's accounting showed nothing to do with breeding and selling undernourished animals. If profits existed, they weren't on the regular books. It wasn't conclusive proof of Jackie's innocence, but for now, Tina was satisfied.
Tina found a warm heart in Louise. The older woman had taken a shine to her and Brandy, and the two often crossed paths in the kitchen. Tina also met Don, the groundskeeper, who lived on his own land with his wife and three children. She would come across them while exercising the dogs in some remote corner of Eric's property, and they would exchange pleasantries and laughs before going their separate ways.
Eric also introduced her to Paul Nelson, the local veterinarian. According to Eric, Paul brilliantly graduated from veterinarian school with honors. As much a country man as Eric, Paul had scorned offers from numerous city animal hospitals, preferring to set up his practice in Birchwood, the nearest town to White Birches. Animals and people alike flocked to Paul's practice. Eric himself couldn't do without Paul's services. Tina herself was taken aback by Paul their first meeting.
Tina found herself looking into the eyes of a very striking face, so much so, in fact, that she was momentarily at a loss for words. A warm jacket with the collar turned up as protection against the wind had obviously hidden an intriguing man. He was not handsome by fashionable standards, but there was vitality and a sense of suppressed energy that even Tina, younger than he was, envied. Paul looked anywhere from twenty-eight to thirty-five years old, and Tina wasn't sure whether it was a physical or mental maturity that accounted for his agelessness. From under a thatch of black hair gazed two gray eyes, the clearness of slate coloring warming as he introduced himself to her.
If this man isn't better looking than that actor who plays James Bond, then I'm the Queen of England. It's bad enough I'm spying on my best friend and a boss with a suspicious face and his friendly aunt. Now I've got pure good looks to distract me if I'm not careful.
"Pleased to meet you." His voice was pleasantly deep, his handshake firm.
"Thank-you. I'm Tina."
It's hard adding him to my list of possible suspects. He takes my breath away.
Tina had no choice. Tina added him as well, which also gave her a reason to see him often. The vet was a frequent visitor to the kennels to check on the health of the dogs, for Eric seemed concerned about the least irregularity in any animal's condition. Single and intelligent, Paul seemed to possess a genuine affinity for people and animals like Eric and his aunt. Both two-legged people and four were drawn to Paul's easy-going personality and calm manner -- including Tina.
I'm getting nowhere! How could such kind people be running a puppy mill? She wondered. I have to find out.
Another colorful autumn day found Tina out in the woods walking Brandy and Lady, for Eric finally decided to entrust her with Lady. Tina kicked a pile of leaves contentedly. She liked her new job, was liked by those around her, and enjoyed her work. The outdoors had replaced her stuffy pet store office, while those around her seemed to care for her as a person, not just someone who signed their pet-store paychecks.
There are definite advantages to NOT being the boss. Everyone here makes me feel special. She especially enjoyed the easy camaraderie she and Paul shared. If he ever found a woman he could love, would she be graced by the soft, melting look of his slate eyes that only his patients were now privileged to receive?
Tina steered her thoughts away from such dangerous veins. Brandy and Lady were drifting away, so she whistled and waited for them to catch up before resuming her walk.
A good spy doesn't fraternize with the suspects, she warned herself. She should be concentrating on other suspects besides Paul, such as Eric's friend Arleen Gail.
Tina wondered about her ever since she had heard Eric talking to her on the phone. Always on the lookout for clues to the owner of a puppy mill, Tina kept a close eye on everyone connected to Eric. He'd introduced Arleen to Tina as a supplier of food and grains for Eric's dogs and horses. She owned the local feed store, and White Birches purchased bulk supplies from her.
Tina immediately wondered if Eric was chasing Arleen, or was it the other way around? Probably the latter, Tina decided. For if ever a woman was smitten with a man, Arleen was smitten with Eric. She seemed obvious to everyone at White Birches except Eric himself.
Paul was merely polite, but then he was quite secure in his position as Eric's friend and his vet. Louise and Jackie kept to themselves when Arleen was around, making wide circles to avoid her. After Tina's first meeting with Arleen, Tina decided to practice the same action. Arleen wasn’t a warm person, nor did she wish to socialize.
Arleen showed up weekly to check on the account. Arleen's father owned the local rod and gun resort. Since she occasionally worked as a hostess, she was always dressed impeccably. Her green eyes were artfully made up, her hair carefully done, and she never looked as if her skin tolerated a smudge of dirt.
As usual, Arleen was at the house when Tina returned from exercising the dogs. She and Eric were discussing business in the living room with one of the dogs when Louise had shown Arleen inside. Eric was particularly solicitous.
"Arleen! What a surprise! Please, sit down," he said, jumping up to greet her.
"Oh, Eric, you're a mess. Don't get me dirty." Arleen backed off from his touch.
Tina looked down at her work clothes, which, like Eric's, showed dog hairs. She knew own her hair showed the tumbled results of the brisk October wind. Arleen eyed her boldly, and her disdainful smile showed that she'd also noticed Tina's appearance. Tina fumed inside.
Rudely turning away from Tina, Arleen addressed Eric only. “Is this your new little worker, Eric? The one who mucks out your cages?"
"Actually, Tina's quickly on her way to becoming my new right arm. This is Tina Langley, my new dog handler. Tina, Arleen Gail."
"Pleased to meet you," Tina said politely.
"Yes, I'm sure you are," came the dry answer. Her voice lacked warmth, and Tina instantly knew they were never going to be good friends.
"If you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Tina stood, wanting to escape Arleen's presence as quickly as possible. The dogs are much better company!
"Please stay a bit, Tina. I'd like you two to get acquainted." Eric's request prevented her from a graceful departure. Tina decided to make the most of it and play spy as she sat out the session.
"Are you thirsty, Arleen?" Eric asked.
"Yes, please, darling. I'd like a gin and tonic."
"Coming up." Eric moved over to the bar, Arleen's gaze never leaving him. “Tina?"
"No, thank-you." It's far too early, and I need my wits about me.
Eric turned with a single glass only. Arleen accepted it with tapering fingers highlighted by flawless nail polish. "Thank-you, Eric. You're a dear."
Eric grinned. “So what brings you to this neck of the woods? It's not our regular delivery day."
"I know, but Father and I wanted to invite you to the club for lunch tomorrow. We had a catered lunch cancel, but the food's already paid for and prepared, and has to be eaten or thrown out."
"I'd love to come. Does that include -- "
"All of you, of course. Your aunt, Jackie, and your new laborer," she said, glancing at Tina. “No sense wasting food."
"We'll make certain we're free," Eric said. “Thank-you."
Tina murmured her thanks. She wasn't particularly keen on attending, but it wouldn't hurt to get out and nose around. Maybe Arleen makes food deliveries to the puppy mill. Or someone at her father's club is involved. Investigative work seemed to lead from one question to another.
"It's a date, then," Eric said.
Arleen nodded, and set her drink down with a slight thud. The thump woke up Brandy, sleeping in Tina's room just across the hall. He perked up his ears, lazily stretched, and trotted out to investigate.
"Eric! What is that dog doing in the house? You’ve never allowed dogs inside before!" She clung to Eric in alarm.
"There's nothing to worry about. I wish you were more comfortable with animals." It was the first negative tone he'd used with Arleen since her arrival.
"I'm comfortable with them, but I can't work check on my clients’ accounts looking like -- like Tina!"
"Brandy, come!" Tina ordered. “I'll leave, Eric."
"Arleen, this is Tina's dog, Brandy. He's her pet."
"For paid help, you certainly are letting her take liberties! What about your carpet?"
"Tina's using the side bedroom off the kitchen, so there's no problem."
"Why own a dog that doesn't earn his keep?"
"I'll take him out," Tina said, glad of the opportunity to escape. “I have work to do, anyway."
Tina headed back outside with her dog. Neither she nor Brandy came back until Arleen's car drove away from White Birches. She called to Brandy, trying to catch the chattering squirrel trapped within a hollow log.
"Come on, boy. Looks like you and I will be eating lunch alone tomorrow. I doubt I'll be welcome at the club now -- and I'd planned to do some snooping there. This detective business isn’t easy as it looks on TV." Tina headed back to the house.
"We've been waiting dinner on you," Jackie said as Tina stepped into the kitchen. “What are you going to wear to the club for lunch tomorrow?"
"Me? But Arleen and I didn't exactly hit it off, and -- "
"Louise begged off, but Eric wants the rest of us to go. He wanted me to remind you that he and I will be in town again tomorrow morning, so you'll have to drive yourself. Then I'll catch a ride home with you. Eric's driving Arleen home."
"You almost sound jealous," Tina said slowly.
"Don't be ridiculous! I just don't like Arleen. Now hurry up and wash your hands."
Time to stop worrying about Jackie's love life -- and Eric's, unless he's dating a modern version of Cruella DeVille. Arleen isn't an animal person, that's for sure. Could she nearly have killed Brandy as a pup? I'll find out. My dog's a fighter -- and so am I.
The next day, Tina finished hosing down the last of the pens, and hung the coiled hose from its notched peg on the tool-shed wall. She blew on her cold hands and checked on Brandy's whereabouts. She'd purposely finished her work early this morning so as to have time to dress for the luncheon. I wonder what Mata Hari would wear? I want to look nice. She was tired of an audience of dogs in her usual jean-attired self.
Tina called out and Brandy reluctantly turned away from Lady's pen. Tina laughed. “So that's how it is. Sorry, boy but she's already spoken for."
She brought him into her room for company as cleaned up. She hoped to leave the house at noon, for the luncheon was scheduled for one.
Tina finished the final touches of her make-up when she heard the sound of a car from her bedroom. She checked her watch and with a start, noticed it was twelve thirty. That's what comes from stalling in the bathtub, she scolded herself. Did Eric and Jackie decide to swing home and pick me up after all? She grabbed her coat and purse and hurried to the door, pleased to see Paul, the vet.
"Hello, Tina, is Jackie here? I didn't see her car around front."
"I'm afraid not. She and Eric ran into town," she explained, somewhat disappointed that Paul's trip here was due to Jackie. “I'm supposed to meet them for lunch at Arleen's club."
Paul shook his head. “You won't make it. There's been an accident on the main road in, and traffic's grid-locked."
Tina's expression fell. I wanted to check out Arleen as a possible suspect. “So much for my afternoon off in town."
"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news."
"I'd better go back inside and tell Louise. Would you like to come in?" she asked politely. “Coffee's on."
"No, I'm on my way to the clinic. I'm late as it is."
"That's right," Tina remembered. “You're open on Saturdays. Why are you here? White Birches is past the pile-up."
"My vet assistants and my receptionist aren't. I just talked to my answering service. My staff can't get in until the accident is cleared up. I thought Jackie could pinch hit at the desk. Say, Tina…” The obvious solution dawned on Paul's face. “Care to step in?"
"I -- "
"All you'd have to do is look up each patient's file and grab the phones. I really need somebody. Even the temp agency can't get anyone over that road."
I could check out Paul's files and see if he's involved in animal abuse. “If you think I can help," she agreed. “Let me tell Louise, and have her walk Brandy if I'm late. He's napping in my room."
"Tell Louise you're bringing him along. He can stay behind the reception desk. And thanks, Tina. You're a life-savor."
Before long they were at the clinic. Paul frowned as he saw the number of people and pets packed into the waiting room.
"Looks like your early appointments missed the wreck," Tina said in an undertone.
"Yes. Thank goodness you're here," he said as he took off his coat. "I'm behind already."
Paul tossed Tina a white professional coat and motioned her to put it on. The reception area was enclosed, so she and Brandy were partitioned off from the waiting area.
"Sorry I'm late, people," Paul apologized. “That accident has tied up access, so if any of you want to reschedule, I'll understand."
He quickly showed Tina the location of the appointment book and the files previously pulled for the day. Before long she settled into a routine. She called the next patient's name, pulled his or her vet file, and directed them to the appropriate examination room.
The afternoon continued to an early end. The same gridlock that prevented Paul's staff from making it in also prevented many of the patients from showing up. In the country, few alternate routes were available.
"Looks like we're all done here," Paul said, locking the front door to the public. “I'll clean up the exam rooms, then I'm taking you out for dinner. It's the least I can do."
"Sounds good," Tina said. Now's my chance to check out the files on White Birches Kennels. “Do you mind if I let Brandy loose? He's been cooped up too long."
"No problem -- I'll take him to the exercise yard while I finish up."
"And I'll straighten up here." As soon as Paul was gone, Tina dug into the White Birches files. She flipped through them, searching for discrepancies and finding nothing. She checked out Arleen's files with the same results. When spot-checking some other possibilities, she became aware of a presence in the room. She looked up to find Paul studying her.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
She tried to keep her voice light, although her face burned bright red. “Just -- straightening up the files."
Paul leaned on the desk. “You're spying on me. Now ask me how I know."
"I…" What does a spy do who gets caught?
He bent down and stroked Brandy's head. “I checked Brandy's ear tattoo. Habit, I suppose. I take care of so many Irish setters, I have to be careful I don't mix them up. I recognize your dog. He's one of Eric's. One I've treated before as a pup."
Tina carefully replaced the file on White Birches Kennels. “Oh? What a coincidence."
"Playing innocent won't work, Tina. Someone's been selling sick puppies, and I've been trying to track them down. Since Brandy here was one of those sick dogs, I'm guessing we're on the same side. Are we?"
Tina reached for her dog and tousled his ears. “I hope so," she said, "Or this is going to be a very embarrassing ride home."
Paul grinned. “Dinner first, remember? I know just the place. It's casual, and since I take care of the owner's horses, I could probably get Brandy a burger patty on the house. Get your coat, and let's go."
"How's your shrimp?" Paul asked.
"Great. I hope the humble pie is, too." Tina ruefully put down her fork. “So far, I'm not very good spy."
"Your heart's in the right place. I'm glad you told me everything."
There's something about Paul-an honesty that tells me I can trust him. I'm ashamed to admit that when I first met you, all I noticed was your good looks, not the warm personality beneath.
"Between the two of us," Paul continued, " -- maybe we can narrow down the list of suspects. Seeing Brandy is the first lead I've had in a long time."
"So you suspect a puppy mill at White Birches, too?"
"A puppy mill, yes. White Birches? I don't know. Eric makes a good living off his kennels. He doesn't need to cut corners."
"Some one is," Tina insisted. “Brandy was White Birches stock that wasn't healthy enough to sell -- he was even sent to you for treatment. Yet he was shipped and sold to me out of state. Someone's pulling a fast one."
Paul took a sip of his coffee. “So who's our list of suspects?"
"Well, I've eliminated my brother and myself, of course. And Jackie. I-uh-checked out her books, and saw nothing."
"You've been snooping all over, haven't you?" Paul said. “But I wouldn't eliminate Jackie. Even though she's your friend, she is the accountant. She could be fixing a second set of books."
"I don't know. I thought perhaps Chuck -- "
"Chuck Warner, the man who wants to buy me out." Tina filled him in on her business problems. “I thought he might have something to do with it."
"Again, I don't know," Paul said. “Warner's employer is a large, reputable chain. Not owning your pet store won't break them, nor would they welcome bad publicity by being involved in illegal practices."
"Then who could it be? This is a small town, after all."
"Arleen owns the only local feed store. I wonder if she knows something."
"If she does, she's not telling me," Tina replied. “She doesn't like me, or my dog."
"Yet she's a good businesswoman, and donates much to charity. As does Eric."
"I wonder about him, too."
"White Birches is his kennels," Paul agreed. “He either knows what's going on, or he should. I haven't found a shred of evidence myself, until Brandy. I saw this animal as a pup. I recommended that he be put down."
"I'm so glad you didn't!"
At the sound of his name, Brandy perked his ears up from beneath their table. Tina reached down to pet his head. “So did my vet, when I took him in. He'd been shipped to me without water or food, and was so sick it was painful to see. But I couldn't give up on him."
"Seems like your TLC did the trick."
"Tender loving care. He's a healthy animal now."
Tina smiled. “I love animals, and love working with them. There's a big difference between owning for profit and owning for pleasure. Brandy is that difference. I'm so used to having my dog around me that I feel lonely when he's not nearby. Not that I make a fuss over him every second. I'm not into hair ribbons and jeweled collars like some people, but then, I'm a traditionalist."
Paul chuckled. "I've seen some of those dogs myself in my practice. The owners mean well. Dogs enjoy being spoiled, too."
"Brandy does. The thought that other animals are going through what he went through is why I'm here. To put an end to it." And to save David’s and my business.
"White Birches is the key," Paul said. “Eric's been working for years to perfect the breed, and if his pups turn out as well as he hopes, his future as a breeder will be assured. Maybe someone's out to sabotage Eric."
Tina considered that. “An awful thought, but better than finding Eric guilty."
Paul hesitated. “You like him, don't you?"
"Who doesn't? But I'm hardly about to make a pass at my boss. I'm not here for romance. I have a job to do."
"But if you were looking?" Paul prompted.
Tina shrugged. “He's not my type," she honestly replied.
Paul seemed to relax. “There's much to admire in the guy. Everything Eric has, he's worked for. For a long time he only just broke even. Prince was one of the first dogs he owned -- an excellent specimen of male, but he had no worthwhile mate."
"But then came Lady," Tina said.
"Yes. Eric bought Lady as a pup, and in three short years she'd earned grand champion status while Prince slowly but surely plods toward his. Lady is Eric's hope for the future of his kennels. I've been his vet a long time. I'd hate to see his plans fall to dust. Or him in trouble."
"I don't know what to think anymore. I've reached a dead end," she sighed.
"Well, you've eliminated me as a suspect, right?" Tina nodded. Paul gently took her hand. “Between the two of us, maybe we can find out who's the culprit."
"Here's hoping." Suddenly shy, she withdrew her hand and crossed her fingers. “For luck," she said.
As they headed for the exit, neither of them noticed their watcher cross the room and reach for their cell phone.
The sun had long set by the time Paul drove Tina up the driveway. He opened her car door and showed her to the porch.
"Thank-you for the dinner," she said.
"Thanks for rescuing me." He brushed his lips against her cheek in gratitude. “Tell Eric I'll be by tomorrow to check on Lady. And on you."
Tina smiled. “See you tomorrow then."
Paul raised his hand in acknowledgment before driving off.
Tina slowly expelled her breath, feeling good inside, although her tired feet begged for an early bed. The clock in the kitchen read well past nine. Paul certainly set a busy pace for himself. He seemed full of vitality -- a masculine vitality Tina found appealing.
Why couldn't I meet someone like Paul in Maine? Too bad his practice is here in Massachusetts.
The lights were on in the living room, but Tina decided to put Brandy in her room first and change into comfortable sweat pants and top before heading for the evening's traditional fire. Louise was nowhere in sight. As the earliest riser in the house, Louise was also the first one to retire for the night. Jackie and Eric sat in the living room. Jackie read while Eric did the crossword. They both looked up as she walked into the rooms, but their attitude lacked cheerful greeting.
Puzzled by the tension evident in the air, Tina greeted them both, then sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the flames. “How was Arleen's luncheon, Jackie?"
"It's about time you showed up. How was your tête-à-tête with the dear doctor?"
Tina recoiled at the tartness in Jackie's voice.
Eric looked up from the newspaper. “We missed you at the club for lunch."
"Sorry. Something came up. I couldn't make it in."
"You didn't have any problem holding hands with Paul for supper," Eric accused.
Tina drew in her breath. She was seeing a new side of Eric -- a side she didn't find pleasant at all. Tina glanced toward Jackie for some sign of assistance, but Jackie refused to commit herself.
Tina's mind clicked as she assessed the situation. Who told Eric about her activities? The facts had been taken most damagingly out of context. As far as Tina knew, there was only one person out gunning for her, and that was Arleen. Yet she was out eating with Jackie and Eric at the time. I won't lose my temper, she vowed.
"You seem to be quite well versed about my comings and goings. I suppose that comes of living in a small town. However, you may not have heard that the road out was blocked by an accident."
"It was clear when we drove home," Eric said.
"Yes, but not when it was time for me to leave the house. You were already in town, remember? Paul stopped by here looking for help at his clinic. With the road out, his regular help couldn't make it in. The dogs were all set, and since Louise was here to keep an eye on them, I volunteered. Paul took me out for dinner since I missed my lunch. As for the handholding -- not that it’s anyone's business -- Paul was very grateful I pinch-hitted. End story."
Both listeners had the grace to look abashed.
"I'm sorry, Tina," Eric apologized. “It's been a long day, and I hoped to see you at the luncheon."
"I want to know who informed you of my whereabouts," Tina demanded. “I don't like being spied on." Even though I'm spying on all of you.
"I -- it doesn't matter," Eric said. “Again, my apologies. Sorry to have missed you." He rose and made for the door. “I'm going to check on the dogs."
The two women were left alone.
Tina stared at Jackie. “I don't need anyone waiting up for me -- not Eric or you."
"You made Eric look bad in front of Arleen," Jackie said. “I waited up to help smooth things out."
"I'm a big girl, Jackie. I can take care of myself."
Jackie snapped shut her book. “Yeah, that's why you're losing your store, and I had to find you a job."
Tina was silent with shock, hurt, and anger.
"Look, I didn't mean that," Jackie said.
"Oh, I think you did." Tina didn't trust herself to say more. She whirled out of the room and headed for the safety of her room, and the comfort of her dog.
At least I can trust Brandy. And maybe Paul.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Jackie was especially solicitous at breakfast, and Eric even gave Tina the day off.
"Since you missed your half day yesterday, it's only fair you take it." Eric seemed his old, cheerful self again.
She took him at his word. “Thank-you, I think I will."
Paul showed up shortly after breakfast in his capacity as vet.
"I'm here to check your horses," he reminded Eric.
"Take Tina with you," Eric said. “Maybe you'd both like to go riding. You do ride, don't you?"
"Yes, thank-you," Tina said, but it was Paul's company more than the horses that drew her to the stables. With Brandy at their heels, they walked through the woods on the path that led to the horse pasture and stables. Once they were out of earshot, Tina told Paul how someone had been watching their movements.
"I don't like the sound of that," Paul said.
"I asked Eric who called him, but he wouldn't say. He'd rather give me the day off."
"There's that silver lining, and it so happens I have most of the day off myself. After I tend to the horses, what say we do some detecting together?"
The stable sat in a small clearing where Don, the groundskeeper cared for them. Tina opened the door to the barn, and talked softly by way of greeting. The horses were not alarmed, and Tina approached Ginger, the mare whose coat color matched her name. Tina rubbed the horse's nose, for she'd visited the animals before.
"Care for a run, girl?" she asked, patting the horse's neck.
"Maybe we both should," Paul suggested, checking the teeth of the black gelding. “I've been wanting to search these woods for a long time -- now's a perfect opportunity. We even have Eric's blessing."
As soon as Paul finished checking out both horses, he reached for a blanket, and deftly saddled the mare for her. Then he saddled Onyx, the gelding. Tina slipped on the bridle and bits for both animals.
Tina led the mare out of the stable. Paul followed, conscientiously closing the wooden doors behind her. She swung her leg up and over the horse, and let Ginger adjust to her feel and weight while waiting for Paul to mount. Brandy raced ahead of them, anxiously waiting at the edge of the timberline.
"You probably know these woods better than I do," Paul suggested. “Where to?"
"Let's head to the left. It's very hilly, and neither Eric nor I work the dogs there. The horses should easily be able to handle it."
Tina's assumption proved to be right. She found herself enjoying the wild beauty of the autumn in New England, the riot of yellows, oranges and reds still upon the trees. Funny how she missed her pet store less and less. With Paul at her side, she felt strangely at peace. Her mood was contagious, for Ginger pricked up her ears and pranced in delight.
"I think we've both forgotten how much we enjoy being out," Tina said softly as she petted the mare's neck.
"Wish I could make this an everyday thing," Paul said. “I'm usually working on animals, not enjoying them. That's one of the problems being a vet."
"Well, we're enjoying them now. And Brandy's keeping up quite well, too. I'd say this afternoon's an unqualified success so far -- right Brandy?"
Her dog stopped and scented the air, then dashed off to the side.
"He'd definitely on the trail of something," Paul said. "Maybe a rabbit?"
"Let's find out." Tina, then Paul, urged their horses to a canter to keep up with the setter's long legs. “I wonder what he's found," she called to Paul. “I don't see any rab…"
Brandy led them straight to Tina's nightmare. Deep in the middle of the woods stood the ramshackle remains of a hidden kennel.
Paul and Tina immediately dismounted and tied their horses. The cages were small, cramped, with little protection from the elements. Brandy sniffed at the old droppings, and snorted at the foulness of age and odor.
"They don't look like they've been used for some time," Paul said.
"That's no consolation! This place is a disgrace!"
"And well hidden. We would never have found it without your dog and the horses."
Tina stared at the rotting structure before her. “Finding it doesn't tell us who built it."
"We know one thing," Paul said. “The culprit is connected to White Birches."
When Tina finally arrived back at the house, the horses safely stabled, her nerves were still shaken by what she'd seen.
"Are you going to be all right?" Paul asked before she went inside.
"I'm hanging in there." Tina reached for Brandy's head, the touch of his soft fur almost as reassuring as Paul's presence. “You'd better get going. Don't you have early clinic tomorrow morning?"
"I'll call you tomorrow afternoon," he said. “Keep me posted." Paul reached for her hand and gave it a slight squeeze. “We'll solve this yet."
Tina nodded, feeling lonely as he drove away. The afternoon's work with Eric's dogs couldn't take away her feeling of uneasiness, or the horror of what she'd seen. It didn't help when Eric corralled her after dinner in the living room.
She was relaxing, enjoying the last flaming embers throw their own individual patterns against the walls of the darkened room, Brandy asleep at her feet.
"Am I welcome, or would you like your privacy?"
Tina looked up to see Eric's brown eyes asking to stay. Eric is so comfortable to be with! No wonder Arleen and Jackie seem so fond of him. Could this man be an animal abuser? I can't give myself away until I find out. “As long as I don't have to account to you for my free time, no."
"Ouch, I asked for that, didn't I?" His tone was humbly repentant. “Forgive me?"
"I do. And thank-you for giving me the day off." Tina stretched out her legs, enjoying the last rays of heat from the embers. Brandy curled himself up tighter at her feet. “I love to ride, but rarely get the chance."
"I shouldn't have complained when you missed the luncheon. But I care about my employees. Please believe I was more worried than angry."
"All's forgiven. Let's change the subject, okay?"
"Actually, I do have something else I wanted to discuss."
"Why don't you do some extra work with Brandy? Maybe try him in a show or two? He's up to it, and certainly has the looks. More importantly, he's willing to learn. I'd gladly help out with any problem areas."
Tina stared out at the fire. “I don't know, Eric." Why your sudden interest? Are you trying to keep closer tabs on me? "I never considered Brandy a show animal."
"You should. You're not utilizing his full potential. Maybe some of Brandy's high spirits are the result of boredom. Have you ever considered you aren't being fair to the dog?"
"I was never one to believe that a dog has to be worked to death to be happy," Tina said sharply. Especially one who's had such a rough start in life -- maybe thanks to your kennels.
"But Tina, Irish setters are a working breed. Challenge him! He might surprise you! Granted, Brandy enjoys the company and care you give him, but he has no purpose."
"He has a purpose, all right. He keeps me safe, and as I keep him safe." Then, before she said too much, added quickly, "I'll think about it."
"Fine." His voice sounded quite pleased, even triumphant, or was that just her suspicions working overtime? "I'll have Jackie give you a pamphlet on show requirements, plus the paperwork you'll need to submit."
"I'll look at it," she promised. She rose. “Come on, pup. Bed-time."
"You don't have to rush off, Tina. You almost act like you're afraid of me." His voice was pleasantly low but she fancied she heard the note of inquiry in it.
"Just afraid of more work," she joked without any real emotion. Fear ran deep in her heart. I don't know if I can trust you anymore.
"Good night, Tina," Eric said. “Sweet dreams."
When this case is solved, I'll sleep well. Not before.
Outside in the fresh morning air astride Ginger, Tina leaned over in the saddle and shooed Brandy out of the way. He barked playfully. Tina laughed aloud, enjoying the beautiful afternoon in the woods during her lunch break. What's more, Jackie was along for the noon ride as well. Tina had a new plan for solving her mystery.
I'll ride near the run-down kennels Paul and I found in the woods, and watch Jackie's reaction. I know her well enough to tell if she's surprised or guilty. Then she planned on doing the same with Eric, if she could. Jackie would be her first experiment.
I hate doing this to my friend, but I have no choice.
Her excuse for being on horseback so much was Brandy. She told Eric she'd decided to take his advice and show-train him. The long runs in the woods were to build his stamina for agility trials.
Brandy had proved Eric true with his eagerness to learn. Of course there were moments of frustration for dog and mistress, for as skilled as Tina was, she did not equal Eric as a trainer. Her ignorance showed when Brandy balked in confusion at her commands. Those moments were becoming fewer and fewer. When the time finally came for Tina to register for the upcoming show, she had fewer butterflies in her stomach than she would have expected.
The extra work seemed to have as invigorating effect on her as it did on her dog. She welcomed the challenge, for Eric rarely allowed her a free hand with any of his own setters. Tina found that with every problem she resolved in training came an extra amount of self-confidence for a pet storeowner turned handler/spy. She was determined to save her business.
Ginger snorted as Jackie pulled alongside on Onyx, and roused Tina from her muses. The two women headed into the deepness of the woods, dog in tow.
"You really like it here, don't you?" Jackie asked. She sat easily in her seat, her taller woman's frame complementing the gelding's long legs.
"I do -- very much."
"Have you heard from your brother lately?"
"David's doing fine. Still keeping the wolf at bay," Tina said.
"I'm glad. So, what do you think of Eric?" Jackie asked.
"He's a competent dog man. Difficult to get to know, though."
"I don't think so at all! I'm really quite fond of him. I'd hate to see anything bad happen to him."
"What do you mean, Jackie?" Is Jackie warning me off Eric as a romantic interest, or is she telling me to stay out of his business affairs? Does she suspect what I'm doing? "What are you so worried about?"
"Nothing. Nothing!" Jackie broke off her conversation, and they continued their jaunt in silence.
"When we were kids, we used to ride together all the time at summer camp," Tina remembered as the horses continued onward, the autumn leaves crunching under their hoofs. “I hadn't realized how much I've missed it."
"I haven't missed it at all," Jackie said. “Now I remember why I quit. My rear end is sore, and I smell like horse. Let's turn back."
"So soon? We've barely started our ride!" And I'm only halfway to the kennel ruins! "Please, Jackie. I'd really enjoy your company."
"All right. I don't want to ruin your lunch hour," Jackie conceded. “But this is my first and last ride. So much for childhood memories."
Thank goodness I talked her back into it. I really want to confirm that Jackie's NOT involved. “This beats working inside my pet store. I'd rather ride in the sunshine any day of the week." She tipped her face upward to drink in the sun, her lashes long on her cheeks as she closed her eyes.
"Well, there's that," Jackie said reluctantly. “And I love the fall colors."
"Ready for a little canter? Come on, follow me!" Tina urged her mare forward, Brandy still in tow. Tina led Jackie to the old ruins.
Brandy noticed the difference first. He sniffed, and stopped in his tracks.
All the ruins were gone. Wood, wire, rusty nails -- the whole awful mess had disappeared.
"Oh, no!" Tina's voice rose and she instantly realized her mistake when Jackie spoke.
"Tina, what's wrong?"
"I-uh-" Think fast, Tina. “Wanted to show you this lovely apple tree full of fruit, but I think I took the wrong turn."
"Is THAT all?" Jackie rubbed her horse's neck. “I have to get back to work, anyway. Take me back to the stables, please. I have no idea where we are."
Disappointed, Tina sincerely hoped Jackie was telling her the truth. Back at the corral, the girls dismounted. Jackie rubbed her sore bottom with one hand, the other holding securely to her horse. The women removed Ginger and Onyx's saddles, reached for the grooming tools, and proceeded to brush out the streaks of dirt until their mounts' coats were flawless in appearance.
Tina gave the mare one last pat on the neck, then, to avoid any feelings of jealously, walked over to the gelding and rubbed his as well.
"You're stalling, Tina. Come on, back to work," Jackie said. “If we hurry, we can grab some coffee."
They both entered the house by way of the side kitchen door, Brandy behind them. He immediately took a long drink, headed for fireplace to stretch lazily, then curled up on warm rag rug by the hearth.
Tina fussed with the coffee mugs as Jackie made a fresh pot. Louise and Eric joined them.
"I thought I smelled coffee," Eric said.
Louise wrinkled her nose. “And something else. Jackie, I didn't know you rode."
"Not often. It's not my favorite pastime," Jackie admitted.
"I was never big on riding myself," Louise said. “Though I'm glad to catch you both. Does anyone have change for a twenty-dollar bill? My nephew's seventh birthday is coming up, and I need to get his card out in the mail. However, I don't think he's up to receiving twenties at his age, and I'm not up to sending them," she said wryly.
"I don't have my purse on me," Jackie said.
"Sorry, I can't break a twenty," Eric said.
"I've got my wallet. I think I have change." Tina reached into her back pocket.
"I'll never understand how you can live without a purse." Jackie watched Tina check her tooled-leather wallet.
"Well, you never worked around animals for a living."
"But your makeup! Your comb!"
"In my bedroom and a spare set in my car. Here you are, Louise." Tina held out the money for the exchange. “I was sure I had change."
Jackie took the money and handed Tina the twenty. Tina again opened her wallet to put away the bill, and as she did so a glossy photo fell to the floor. Before Tina could retrieve it, Eric bent down and picked it up. It was a picture of Tina and David standing in front of their pet store back home. Eric turned it over in his hand, staring with a puzzled expression.
Tina took advantage of his confusion and instantly snatched the picture away while a horrified Jackie held her breath. Eric blinked in surprise.
"Sorry," Tina said. “I didn't mean to be rude. I just don't -- "
Jackie broke in. “She never lets that picture of her and her boyfriend out of her sight. I keep telling her she's far too shy about the whole thing."
Tina busied herself with securely inserting the photograph in her wallet. It has the name of our pet store for the entire world to see. I hope Eric didn't get a close look.
"A boyfriend, huh?" Louise said curiously. “May I see?"
"Um -- "
"Don't tease her, Louise. So, how about that coffee?" Eric asked Tina.
"I think I'll pass. I need to go upstairs and shower and change. Then I have an afternoon's work left organizing and filing the pedigrees."
Brandy noticed her departure. He lifted his head from the throw rug by the fireplace, but at a word from Tina settled down again. She entered her bedroom alone. Tina removed her wallet from her jeans, placed it on the dresser, and headed for the shower. When she finished and came out to re-dress, she noticed something.
My wallet's been moved! She immediately opened it, reaching for the photo of her and David. The photo was still there, but it had been returned to its slot a shade off center from where Tina usually carried it. Goosebumps crept up Tina's neck. Suddenly the isolation of the area struck her.
I can't trust anyone in this house! I should have brought Brandy with me. He'd never let anyone into my room without letting me know.
Suddenly Tina made her up mind. As soon as I'm done with the filing, I've got to see Paul. He has to know about the photo and the removal of the old kennels. She reached for a dressy pair of pants and a matching jacket both made out of thick corduroy. They should be warm enough, especially if she wore a turtleneck with them. With a pair of leather ankle-high boots, she'd meet Paul looking her very best.
Tina finished her filing in record time, and she and Brandy headed for the car and Paul's office. The drive through the mountains' fall foliage was soothing balm for her thoughts. The riot of hues exploded in shades of orange, red and yellow. By the time she reached town Paul was just closing his office. She met him in his almost-empty parking lot.
"Tina! And Brandy, too. Hey, boy. This is a pleasant surprise."
"I hope you still think so when I've finished my story. Are you busy?" Tina asked without preamble.
"I'm heading over to the apple orchards. We can go together, if you want. Your car or mine?"
"Mine, please, but you can drive. Frankly, I'm a nervous wreck about what's happened."
Paul held up his hand. “Then sit back. The ride's only a couple miles out of town, and you can tell me all about it on the way."
Birchfield Apple Orchards was set in the middle of rolling New England countryside. Rows and rows of apple trees bowed with the weight of the last crop of fall fruit. Many hardy visitors in the fields picked their own apples, with those more pressed for time bought apples, apple jellies, pies and country crafts inside the store.
"What a beautiful place!" Tina said.
"I thought it would lift your spirits."
She nodded. Happy children played on swing-sets next to the hot-apple turnover shack, while their parents watched from well-weathered picnic tables and sipped the shack's hot apple cider. Dogs on leashes were allowed, both outside and in the store. Tina clipped on Brandy's leash, and the three stepped into the bracing autumn air.
Paul pre-paid for the rights to fill an empty bushel basket with apples, and they joined those on the path to the pick-your-own trees.
"I love this time of year," Tina said.
"Me, too." Paul carried the empty basket by one of its two handles.
"If only I weren't so worried about abandoned cages in the middle of nowhere disappearing. Or what to do next."
"Abandoned -- that's the key word. As for what's next -- I think some apples are in order."
The two stopped at a tree. Tina tied Brandy's leash to it and started to climb, for the lower tree branches were already stripped of fruit. “You catch, I'll pick!" she said to Paul.
The orchards weren't crowded, and the crop on the upper branches hung in rich red bounty. Before long their basket was full. Tina climbed down just as Paul polished an apple on his shirt, and took a bite.
"Hey, no fair!" Tina said.
Paul held out his sampled apple to her. “Share?"
Tina only hesitated a minute. “Thanks." She took a bite and passed it back. The two sat down on a strong, lower branch and finished it until only the apple core was left. Paul tossed it to Brandy, who gulped it and eagerly looked for more.
"Sorry, boy. All gone."
"I didn't know you could feed dogs apples," Tina said.
"Apples without seeds and carrots in moderation are good for dogs, especially young dogs. The vitamins help with growth, and the hardness of the food is good for their teeth."
"Are you sure?" Tina asked suspiciously. “Or are you just making this up?"
"Hey, would your local vet steer you wrong? I'm as serious about my work as I am about you."
He leaned forward, and they shared their first kiss beneath the apple tree.
Tina smiled when he pulled away. “You taste like apple," she said.
"So does your dog, but I'm not kissing him."
Tina blushed. Paul grinned, helped her down from the tree, and took on handle of the apple basket.
"Grab Brandy's leash, then grab a side. I swear you cleaned out the whole tree," he teased. “I can barely lift it!"
They bagged their apples in the sacks provided, returned the basket to the check-out shack, placed the apples in the trunk, and a sleepy Brandy in the car's back sear. For once Tina preferred a man's company to her dog’s.
"I'd love to check out the store," Tina said. “My mother's into crafts, and Christmas will be here before we know it. This seems a perfect place to start shopping early."
They walked inside, where antiquities from apple harvesting in the old days mingled with newer equipment. In the back, the workers washed apples and packed them in wooden crates, while in the front customers purchased apple food products, cookbooks, or craft projects with apple designs. Somewhere during their strolls Paul took Tina's hand.
Tina finally settled on apple-embroidered hand towels and an apple-desserts cookbook for her mother, writing stationery for her father, and some apple jelly to take back to White Birches for everyone to enjoy.
"Aren't you getting anything?" Tina asked as they made their way to the cash register.
"I'm saving the best for last." Paul carried her purchases for her, and took her outside to the picnic tables. “Get ready for the best hot apple dumpling in all of New England."
Tina read the sign above the snack shack aloud. “Baked fresh from apples picked daily. Ice cream extra."
"We've got to get the extra," Paul said.
"Count me in," Tina agreed.
Minutes later they were biting into the orchard's specialty. All too quickly the dumplings disappeared, leaving traces of ice cream and pastry flakes in the bottom of the bowl. Paul purchased another, and they split it until it, too, was gone.
"That was like a little piece of heaven," Tina sighed with contentment.
"The apples, and the company," Paul agreed. “Feeling happy?"
Tina smiled. “Yes, thanks."
"Ready to go home?"
"No, though I supposed I should. I'm at a loss what to do next in my investigation. Just keep my eyes and ears open, I guess."
"And be careful."
"Call me if you need help."
He took her hand again. “Promise."
Tina smiled. “I do."
Jackie first spotted Tina's arrival back at White Birches. “Where were you? We've been wondering where you went."
"Just to town to run some errands." Must I watch my every word? Will I ever be able to speak freely again?
"Eric was especially curious as to your whereabouts. He even checked with Louise."
"I had Brandy with me. No one need have worried," Tina said airily.
"I was." Jackie followed Tina into her bedroom and sat on the bed while Tina hung up her good coat. “Everyone's acting so strange around here -- ever since you dropped that picture of you and David."
"I'm sorry Louise ever asked for change for her nephew," Tina sighed.
"Good thing you grabbed that photo back so quick. I doubt Eric had time to read the pet store name on it -- though it could hardly matter now. You've been working for him for a month, already. I doubt he'd fire you now, even if he did know."
"I'd prefer he didn't. You promised to keep quiet, Jackie, remember? Unless you want me to get closer to Eric."
"Oh, no," Jackie protested. “You know I don't."
Tina astutely studied Jackie's face. “You're falling for him, are you?"
Jackie turned her hands palm up. “I already have -- past tense. Only since you showed up, all he’s interested in is you; where you've been, where you're going, what you're doing. Even your dog gets more attention from Eric than I do."
Tina frowned as Jackie crossed her legs on the bed. "Well, stop thinking I'm competition. I'm here to save my business, not romance Eric. If I were you, I'd be more worried about Arleen."
"Some days, it's terrible to be single," Jackie said. “Speaking of love lives, some man called for you today. Said he'd swing by."
"Who?" Tina wondered.
"Louise took the message, but I remember his name. It was Chuck something."
"That's him. He'll be here tomorrow. Louise invited him for lunch."
"Lunch? With Eric?" So much for my cover!
"With all of us."
Tina did all she could to dissuade Louise from having Chuck over to lunch. Her efforts were unsuccessful. On the day of his planned visit, she resolved to stay close to the house and catch him before he talked to Eric. Unfortunately, the one moment she happened to step away -- one of the dogs needed her attention -- she missed his arrival. Louise herself came to call her to the dining room.
Eric, Jackie, and the Chuck, the guest of honor patiently waited for Tina's arrival while Louise placed the serving dishes on the table. Tina started toward her accustomed place next to Jackie, then frowned as she noticed Chuck already in it. Tina sat in the empty chair next to her enemy.
Introductions were made, then Tina said, "Hello, Chuck. What are doing in this neck of the woods?" As if I didn't know.
"Just trying to finish up some old business. That's you, by the way."
Tina smiled politely. “Let's not talk business at the table, all right?" I want to keep the story of my pet store secret!
Chuck's arrival couldn't be more ill timed! Thank goodness he was staying at Arleen's lodge, a good drive away. Maybe he's trying to buy her out, too, Tina thought. As soon as the meal was over, Chuck spoke.
“Tina? Is there someplace we can talk in private?"
"Certainly." Privacy sounds like a good thing to me! "Let's go outside, shall we?" She pulled on a windbreaker over her sweater, zipped it up, and slipped out the side door. Brandy stirred and followed her and Chuck outside. Tina led them a good walk away from the house before she spoke her mind.
"I told you before, my brother and I aren't selling the pet shop! If that's why you flew all the way out here, you've wasted your money."
"Have I?" Chuck asked. “You're now in the dog handling business in Massachusetts. Seems to me you're not that interested in your Maine pet shop. Why not sell your half to us?"
"How many times do I have to say this? I'm not selling!"
"Maybe I should have a little chat with your boss. Does he know you have divided interests and are collecting two paychecks?"
"That's not against the law, nor is it anyone's business but mine. Does your company know I suspect you of sabotaging my store?"
Chuck actually laughed out loud. “Oh, please! You don't actually believe that, do you?"
"I think you're going out of your way to harass me. I wonder what the local police would say, or your corporate headquarters."
Chuck immediately held up his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, calm down, lady! Just doing my job." He reached into a pocket and pulled out his business card. “In case you change your mind. On the back is the local number where I'm staying. I'll be in town until the end of the dog trials. In fact, I'll be watching them. Fine dog you have there." He gave Brandy a look of appreciation, who moved protectively closer toward Tina.
"He's worth ten of you. You'll never get your hands on him -- or my store."
Chuck shrugged. “I can see I've worn out my welcome. I'll go -- as soon as you take this." He held out his card, which she still hadn't taken. Finally Tina snatched it up, if for no other reason than to get rid of him.
Now what? she thought. He's staying right here in town. My secret isn't safe for much longer, and I still have no answers. I'm running out of time. Perhaps I'll find out something -- anything -- at the dog show. It may be my very last chance .
The day of dog show for Prince and Eric, and Tina and Brandy, finally arrived. Eric seemed as calm as ever, unlike a keyed up and jittery Tina. Brandy tuned in to her mood, which didn't help.
"Tina!" yelled Louise. “If you don't get this dog of yours out of my kitchen, I'll carry him out myself! I can't fix us a lunch for the trials if he's underfoot!"
Tina rushed to collar Brandy, who was dodging around Louise' legs as she and Jackie prepared food.
"Why don't you take him for a walk to calm him down?" Jackie suggested. “I'll come with you."
"No," Tina said, clipping on a leash. “I just finished grooming him. I don't want him digging or rolling around."
"Are you certain you want to go through with this?"
"Eric insists. I don't expect to win, but it will be good experience." And I'll be able to talk to Paul. He'll be there. Maybe he can help me snoop around. My past is catching up to me.
"Of course it will! Have a good time, and you know I'm behind you all the way." Jackie took Tina's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"I'll feel better knowing you're out there in the crowd. But Eric will be showing Prince there, so I'm not expecting any win."
"You never know. Here's the plan. Don plans to man the phone and keep an eye on the dogs while we're gone. I'll be handling Lady, so I have to ride in with Eric."
"But -- Lady's pregnant! You can't show a pregnant dog."
"I know that, silly, but Prince always shows better when she's around, so Lady will be with me as a spectator. We do this all the time. What time do you leave?" Jackie asked.
Tina glanced at her watch. “In about an hour. This is my first show, so I want to go early."
"Louise wants to ride in with you and the picnic lunch, if you don't mind," Jackie said. “There's really no room for her with us."
"If she doesn't mind leaving early."
"Now, do you have Brandy's dish? Brush? Treats?" Jackie ticked off the list with familiarity, for she was used to doing the same with Eric. “His paperwork?"
Tina dashed to the desk. “I almost forgot." She stuffed them in her backpack.
"Calm down! Head out to the car and load up Brandy, and I'll call Louise. We'll meet you there."
A half an hour later Tina stood in line at the local rod and gun club, waiting to sign in. She noted with interest the many different breeds of work dogs around her, especially the setters.
"I'm going to have a lot of competition, and not just Eric's," she said to Louise beside her.
"You'll do fine," Louise said firmly. “After all, you have a good dog, and Eric's a great trainer. You've learned a lot. Don't let your confidence sag, or the dog will sense it."
Tina nodded. She saw Brandy's head swivel this way and that, his nose sniffing out the various dogs, his ears perked high on his head at the different noises. Tina finished checking in. Her assigned bench was a considerable distance away from Eric's. She could see him and Prince, Jackie and Lady at his side. The humans waved as they noticed her, and she waved back.
We'll meet soon enough in the ring. Who would have guessed my investigation would get me in a dog show?
Tina also noticed Chuck in the crowd, Arleen next to him. Paul was off on his own, but nearer the front of the bleacher seating.
The suspects are all here, and I'm no closer to solving this mystery than I was four weeks ago.
"Irish setters to the ring, please," said the announcer over the loudspeaker. Tina took in a deep breath, and gave Brandy a final pat on the head before ordering him to heel and head for the ring. When Paul flashed her a thumbs up from the bleacher seats, some of the butterflies in her stomach settled.
He's a great guy. I'm glad he's here. Jackie was right. I might as well enjoy myself.
The other entries filed into the ring, including Eric and Prince. Tina inclined her head in acknowledgment with more coolness than she felt. Then the judge walked into the rings and all the handlers and dogs snapped to attention. The crowd quieted as the judge examined the animals individually, then said in a crisp voice, "Circle your dogs."
Tina commanded Brandy to heel, and the dogs were set through their paces. She felt a momentary flutter as Prince passed them on the opposite side of the circle they all were tracing. She needn't have worried, for as far as Brandy was concerned, Prince might not have existed. The judge eyeballed every one of the Irish setters, and smiled as he studied Prince. Shiny and sleek, Prince looked every inch the experienced winner. Eric had every reason to be proud.
Finally it was Brandy's turn. Tina noticed the judge didn't smile at Brandy the way he did with Prince, but she was proud of Brandy's work in the ring, and her own.
Tina began to fidget as the judge leisurely took his time with her dog. He wasn't this slow with the others. The judge signaled for Tina and everyone else to line up again. Brandy raised his head and she softly spoke to settle him. Finally the judge singled out three handlers.
"Number Seven, number Fourteen, and number Twenty-three, please run your dogs." Tina saw number Twenty-three, a young boy with a chestnut-colored female step out, and nearly cheered aloud when number seven, Prince and Eric, joined the line. The crowd waited expectantly, as did Tina, for the next pair to follow.
The judge was clearly annoyed. He rechecked his clipboard of papers, and said again, "Number Fourteen? Ms. Langley! To the center." Tina jumped with a start as she noticed the number on her I.D. tag.
I'm number Fourteen!
She hurried Brandy to the edge of the ring and began to run him along with the others. Finally the judge motioned for the three pairs to stand with their dogs, and made his decision.
"Best of breed category," the judge called out. “First, second, and third, in this order." Prince placed first, Brandy second, and the female was third. The crowd applauded its appreciation as Eric accepted the blue ribbon for his male, Tina the red, and the young boy the white for his female.
"Hey, Brandy, we took second! Good dog!" She patted him and tossed him treats from her pocket. “Eric, congratulations to you and Prince."
Tina felt no disappointed. Her dog was still young, just barely shy of having the full feathering of Prince's coat, nor did he have the other dog's experience in the ring. Tina realized Prince's blue ribbon was a certainty. But Brandy's was an exciting development! David would be so surprised when she called him!
Now everyone applauded the three winners. Eric posed for the winner's photo with the judge, and voiced his thanks,
"Don't thank me," the judge replied. "Thank your dogs! Both first and second place -- White Birches Irish setters. I'm impressed, Eric, and your new handler did a great job."
Eric blinked. Tina froze. Oh, no! The paperwork I had to submit -- Brandy's ear tattoo! Part of my secret is out!
The judge placed the second place red ribbon in her hand. “Fine dog, Miss. Fine dog." The words echoed in Tina's ears as she looked everywhere but at Eric when he leaned over and shook her hand.
"Congratulations. You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"
Great. How am I ever going to do damage control on this?
"Best of show category to the ring," announced the judge. The words were repeated on the loudspeaker.
Saved by the bell!
"That's you, Eric. Good luck!" Tina practically ran out of the ring, Brandy in tow.
Jackie holding Lady on a leash, Louise, and Paul waited as Tina made her way back to the benches, no small task, as spectators crowded around her to admire the second place Irish setter.
"Congratulations to both of you!" came the warm wishes.
"Thanks, but I couldn't have done it without Brandy here." Brandy perked his ears at the sound of his name, then flopped on the ground and rolled in the leaves.
"Hey, boy, that's no way to celebrate!" said the male voice.
"Paul!" I'm so glad he's here.
"Tina, you two were fantastic!" He kissed her on the cheek. "Buy you a drink? Some hot apple cider, and water for Brandy?"
"That would be great. Thanks, Paul. Jackie, I'll hook up with you and Louise for Eric's final judging, don't you worry."
"I packed us all a lunch, remember?" Louise shoved the picnic basket into her hand. “Don't forget."
Jackie and Louise hurried back to the judging ring. Tina waited for them to leave before saying, "Paul, I'm in trouble. Eric just found out Brandy's from White Birch Kennels!"
"The judge brought it up when awarding the ribbons! And I was so careful not to let Eric see the paperwork."
Paul passed her a hot apple cider and groaned. “Why did you enter in the first place?"
"Eric insisted! And it gets worse. Chuck -- the representative from the pet store chain that wants to buy me out is in town. So far no one knows about my personal business, but it's only a matter of time. Any suggestions?"
"Well ... tell the truth, but as little as possible. You bought Brandy out of state. Yes, your brother owns a pet store, and yes, Chuck wants to buy it. Period. Don't offer any more information than they ask you for. You're a pretty cool customer. You can pull this off."
"I hope so. I don't know "
"Sure you can. Now let's have our lunch and get back to the ring before they really suspect something."
She and Paul soon rejoined Jackie and Louise. Eric and Prince's main competition for best in breed was a liver-and-white colored spaniel, but in the end, Prince came out on top as best of breed. Eric smiled proudly, Prince beside him as the audience applauded yet another triumph for White Birches Kennels.
"Come on, Ms Red Ribbon, I'll give you a ride home," Paul said to Tina once the turmoil died down.
"Thanks, but I have my car here," Tina reminded him. “I'll drive it and Brandy home."
"Just my luck," Paul said.
"I have a question before we all go back to the house to celebrate," Eric said. “Where did you buy Brandy?"
Tina didn't hesitate. “At a pet store. Why?"
"Hmm. We don't sell many of our animals to pet stores, but we do sell a few. I should never have let Brandy get away from me."
Paul pulled her close with one graceful movement of his arm, and Tina almost melted in relief. So far, so good.
"Hello." Arleen appeared from out of the crowd. “Congratulations, Eric! Another first place for Prince -- although I can't say I'm surprised."
"Don't forget Tina," Jackie said loyally. “She took a ribbon, too."
"Care to come by the house later for the celebration?" Eric asked Arleen.
"Sorry, I'll take a rain check. I have to take care of Chuck Warner, one of our lodgers. He's an acquaintance of Tina's, I believe?" Arleen ran a painted fingernail along her bottom lip.
Drat that woman! I no sooner get out of one tight spot than I'm shoved into another! "Yes, everyone's met Chuck, Arleen." I can't keep this up forever .
"Another time, then," Eric suggested.
"Perhaps. Congratulations again, Eric," Arleen said. “I'm off."
"Paul? Join us?" Eric asked.
"As much as we bachelors love a free meal -- " Paul winked at Louise, "I have a pregnant horse to see."
"Then it'll just be the four of us," Jackie said happily, her eyes on Paul.
"Louise, care to ride with me again?" Tina asked.
"Thanks, but I'd rather ride with my nephew," Louise said proudly, "Despite the tight squeeze."
Everyone headed to the adjacent parking area; Louise with the empty food basket and Jackie and Lady riding with Eric and Prince, and Tina with Brandy. Tina left the parking lot first, heading straight home and taking care of the evening feedings for Brandy and the other dogs.
Louise wasn't yet home to light the usual evening fire so Tina did. There was a chill in the air, and it smelled like rain. Brandy elected to stay in front of the hearth as Tina went to make a pot of coffee for the others. Rain started falling as Tina finished in the kitchen, and joined her dog on the carpet, watching the flames dance among the logs.
"Thank goodness it didn't fall during the dog show," she said aloud, petting Brandy's head. “Or your pretty coat would have been a mess. You were such a good dog today. I'm proud of you."
Suddenly the drops of water started falling even harder, heavily pelting at the windows.
"I hope Eric's careful on the roads, boy," Tina said. "He should be here soon."
But Eric's car didn't arrive soon. Tina settled on the couch and tried reading the evening paper to distract herself, but that failed. She threw it down on the coffee table when she heard the phone ring. “Eric, is that you?" she immediately asked.
"No, it's Paul. I'm done with my patients. Mare and foal are doing fine. Is it too late for the party?"
"No one's showed up! I thought you were Eric calling. Doesn't he have a cell phone?"
"He gave it to Louis to hold while he was showing Prince. There’s no cell reception in that area anyway."
"Paul, I'm worried. Even on a night like this, it shouldn't take them so long to get home. I think I should go out and search for them."
"Stay put! I'm on my way. I’ll call the police to check that road, too. If they don't show up before I do, we'll head out together, okay?"
Paul hung up, and Tina slowly replaced the receiver. She hugged her dog for comfort.
"I've got a bad feeling about this, Brandy. A real bad feeling."
The rain continued falling through the evening. Friendly rays of the moon and the streetlights barely filtered through its heaviness. The coffee cups still sat untouched when Paul drove up. Tina rushed to let him in the side door.
"I didn't notice any cars in the driveway," he asked, his hair damp with rain. “Did Eric or anyone phone yet?"
"No, no one!" She grabbed a hooded slicker as protection against the chilling weather. “Let's go. No, not you, Brandy," she said as the setter bounded up and away from his place under the table. “Stay."
The ground was soggy, the driveway soft with mud and loose gravel as they drove away. Tina's throat tightened with fear.
"I hope they're all right," she said. “Maybe it's just a flat tire -- something minor."
"Keep thinking those good thoughts." Paul's free hand reached for hers and squeezed it.
Good thoughts didn't help. Seven miles down the road, Eric's car sat in a ditch. Tina noticed it first. “There, Paul, stop! I see Jackie and Eric, too! Pull over!" Paul stopped and set up emergency flares. She and Paul both hurried to the car in the ditch.
"Are you two okay?" she asked. Her boss and friend stood outside, soaked with rain.
"No," Jackie said, "Louise is unconscious and the dogs are still inside! We're trying to get them out!"
The good doors of the station wagon lay almost flush against the wall of the ditch. Tina could see one open window where Jackie and Eric must have climbed out. Paul joined them with a flashlight and a tire-iron. Eric tugged unsuccessfully at the most accessible crumpled door.
"Help should be on the way," he said. “Eric, you're hurt. Stand aside and let me try!"
Tina shone the flashlight as Paul wrestled with the door. Inside, Lady moved and barked in her crate, but Prince and Louise remained motionless.
The mess seemed hopeless. The mud and dark added to the chaos while Paul pried at the door. Where are the police? What's taking so long?
Tina partially straightened, then opened her eyes wide. Eric's car was moving! Between the mud and the men's efforts, it was slipping further down into the ditch -- threatening to flip completely over!
Lady barked even more frantically and clawed at the cage, trying to get to Eric. In a move of desperation, the men finally opened the door. Tina grabbed for Lady's crate door, then her collar and pulled her out. Eric and Paul unfastened the unconscious Louise's seat belt.
"We shouldn't move her!" Paul warned Eric.
"The car's going to flip any minute! We don't have a choice! You take Louise, I'll get Prince!"
The men lifted Louise and Prince out just as the SUV slid more.
Tina put Lady in Paul's car, safely away from traffic and the sliding vehicle. Louise's arms hung limply, her eyes closed, her body still. Prince whimpered, obviously in pain. For once his shining red tail didn't swish happily at seeing Eric. Tina and Jackie extended hands to help the men out of slippery ditch. Soon afterwards the police and ambulance arrived to place Louise upon the stretcher. The unconscious Prince was placed inside Paul's car with Lady.
"I'm off to my clinic," he said. “Prince is in bad shape, and I need to check Lady over, too."
In shock, Eric stood between the ambulance and his aunt, and Paul's car and his dogs. Jackie gently took his hand and led him to the ambulance.
"Come on, Eric. You're hurt too. We need to get checked over ourselves, and be there for Louise. Tina and Paul will take care of the dogs, okay?"
Tina drove Paul's car to the clinic while he tended Prince in the back seat. Lady whimpered over her motionless mate. The drive to the clinic seemed to take forever.
"How is he?" Tina asked.
"Not good. He'll need surgery -- I suspect a broken hip at the least. Grab my cell phone, please. I need to call my two vet techs. I want the O.R. prepared and waiting."
Tina drove as fast as she safely could into the parking lot at Paul's clinic. Help was indeed waiting. Paul and his team rushed the two dogs inside, one tech with Lady, and Paul and the other assistant into surgery with Prince. Tina could do nothing but pull the dogs' files, call the hospital to check on her two-legged friends, and wait for news.
When the news came, Tina knew it was bad from the expression on Paul's face. She jumped to her feet as he re-entered the reception area.
"He'll live." Paul sat down, exhaling with weariness. “But he broke his hip. I had to wire it together again."
Tina gasped. “Poor thing! He'll walk again, right?"
Paul nodded. “He'll walk, but the break was messy, and the bone fragments did a lot of damage. There was other damage, too. Prince won't be able to sire a litter again."
"The damage was too extensive. I did my best."
Paul looked so desolate that Tina took his hands. “I'm sure you did. At least Lady's okay."
"She's not okay, either. Tina ... she lost the puppies."
"Oh, no. No!"
"The shock of the accident, I suppose. She'll be fine, she'll be able to carry another litter, but never by Prince." Paul ran his fingers through his hair. “I already called Jackie and let her know."
"Eric will be devastated," Tina worried. “I'll have to tell him."
"Better let Jackie do it. She's holding down the fort at the hospital. Both Eric and Louise have been admitted."
Tina rose. “I should go. Eric's dogs back home need care will need feeding."
"Are you up to all that on your own?"
"Of course. Don can help. I won’t let Eric down."
"Take my car. I'll pick it up later." Paul stood with her. They hugged tightly, relief over the safety of the living mingling with worry over the injured and grief over puppies who would never play in the light of day.
Paul kissed Tina on the cheek. “I won't keep you any longer. Call me when you can. And a few prayers wouldn't hurt, either."
"You've got it."
Paul hurried back inside as Tina stepped outside into the gloom of a rainy, tragic night.
Tina didn't make it to the hospital until the following morning. Louise had regained consciousness by then. Jackie refused to leave Eric's side. Tina and the groundskeeper kept the kennel running and the animals fed. There was no training in the rain. Paul remained at his clinic with the sick dogs.
Tina stopped at the hospital as soon as she was able. She quietly sat down in a chair next to Louise's bed, not intending to disturb her, but Eric's aunt awoke anyway.
"Hello, there," Tina said as Louise pushed the hair back from her face. Her eyes were dark with circles under them, and she looked old.
"Hi, Tina." Louise's voice came strongly. She moved carefully, cautiously testing her muscles.
"How do you feel?" Tina asked.
"A little sore." Louise rubbed the back of her neck. "I have one heck of a bump on my head. The doctors want to keep me here for a few days. Have you seen Eric yet?"
"No, but Jackie's with him." Eric had heavy bruising and two broken ribs, Tina was told. “He'll be going home in a few days, too."
"Thank heavens," Louise said. “How are the dogs? Jackie told me she spoke to you and Eric about them."
"Well, Prince and Lady won't be entering any contests for awhile."
"Contest…" Louise's expression drooped as memory returned. "What about the dogs?"
Tina took Louise's hand. “The news isn't good. Are you sure you're up to it?"
"Prince needed surgery for a broken hip. Paul saved him, but there were other injuries. Prince won't be able to father any more litters."
Louise cringed at the news. “And Lady?"
"At first, Paul thought she was okay. But the jar to her body when the car went into the ditch ... "
"No… But Louise, she lost her pups."
Louise buried her face in her hands. “This is all my fault!"
"It couldn't be."
"But it is! We were arguing in the car."
"Arguing?" Tina echoed. “Whatever for?"
"I'm the one who's been selling sub-standard animals from this kennel."
"I don't believe you."
"Believe her, Tina. She's telling the truth." Jackie walked into the room, and closed the door behind her.
"I figured it out only recently -- before you took me riding, in fact. I didn't want you to find the old kennels, and I tried to keep the truth from Eric, so I took them down."
"So you were the one?"
Jackie sat next to Louise and fondly held her hand.
"I'll tell her, Louise." Tina listened as Louise began. “It started out innocently enough. I'm from the old school, Tina. You try to save all your dogs, no matter how sick or weak they are. But the new breeders -- breeders like Eric -- they don't. Only the strong healthy puppies survive, and the truly sick or deformed are put to sleep! What a euphemism that is! They're killed as babies!"
Tina frowned. “I hate it, too, but sometimes it's the most humane thing to do. As a pet store owner -- yes, I own a pet store -- you have to think of the animal's suffering first."
"I don't believe in it! I never have! So I tried to save as many sick ones as I could. Like Brandy. Would you rather Eric had his way with your dog?"
"No, I don't," Tina said. “But shipping sick dogs to pet store owners only cause more problems. Brandy and others like him suffered terribly, I ran up my own vet bill, and my brother and I lost money from our business."
Tears ran down Louise's cheeks. “I know. Jackie told me, and I stopped. But then I was afraid Eric would find out. You showed up with Brandy -- and I remember shipping him to your pet store when I saw that photo fall out of your wallet."
"You were the one snooping in my room? And who told Eric about my dinner with Paul when I couldn't make it to Arleen's?" Louise is full of surprises. I thought I was the only amateur investigator around.
"Yes. I'm sorry. I was afraid you would find out what I was doing, then Chuck from the pet store showed up, and then ... " Louise took in a deep breath.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. Louise and I are both guilty of dishonesty.
"I have a confession to make to both of you," Tina said bravely. “I haven't been that honest myself. I've been doing my own snooping."
Louise and Jackie listened to Tina's side of the story.
"But you didn't cause the car to crash," Louise said when Tina finished. “You don't have that on your conscience. I do. You see, Eric figured it all out after the dog show, when he found out Brandy was a White Birches dog from the judge. He and I are the only ones with the authority to ship livestock. He was so angry, and what with the rain ... "
Jackie placed her arms around Louise's shoulders. “It was an accident, Louise. You mustn't blame yourself."
"But I do! Prince was to have been the cornerstone for the future of White Birches Kennels. And he was Eric's personal favorite. "
"Prince can still be Eric's companion."
"But he can't breed him! And Lady lost the only litter Prince sired. Those puppies would have put Eric in the black. They were all paid for in advance. Now I don't even know if the kennels can stay afloat."
"You're going to make yourself sick, Louise," Tina said. “Maybe it will work out."
"I don't see how." Louise began to cry. Tina and Jackie continued to reassure the older woman. The effort tired her, and before long Louise dropped off to sleep.
"Can you forgive me?" Jackie asked Tina. “I know I didn't tell you the truth, but I had to protect Eric."
"I guess we both kept the truth to ourselves for too long," Tina said quietly.
Jackie nodded. “I should get back to Eric."
"You do love him, don't you?" Tina asked.
"Yes. And White Birches."
"It'll take more than love to save White Birches, Jackie." Or my pet store.
A week passed. Tina spent most of it at the kennels as the two-legged patients came home to recover. The household had lost its usual air of cheeriness, for although Eric, Louis, and Lady had come home, Price hadn't. He was still in the veterinary hospital. It seemed as though the brilliance of the autumn foliage was gone. The laughter disappeared with it.
The October rain fell again as Chuck stopped by. Tina answered the door on legs achy from fatigue, for she'd taken over many of Eric's duties. From the kitchen window, Tina noted Chuck's suitcase slightly visible from within the cab.
"Hi, Tina. Aren't you going to ask me in?"
Tina opened the door wide, and Chuck followed her into the living room.
"Won't you have a seat?" she politely inquired, holding Brandy's collar as he protectively rose from his favorite spot by the fire.
"Only for a moment. I have a plane to catch. Sorry to bother you, what with all the problems this kennel's been having, but if you have a minute, we need to talk."
"I don't know if you realize this, but your brother wants to sell the pet store to our chain."
"He's been for it since the beginning."
"David wants to sell?"
"So I'm right. You didn't know, but David claimed you did. What you took for harassment wasn't harassment at all. I merely followed up on your brother's suggestions. He wants to become a store manager for our chain -- said he wanted to stand on his own two feet."
"I ... had no idea."
"No, and that's your brother's cowardly fault. He should have told us both the truth, and saved us all this grief. Tina, if you want to sell your store, you know how to reach us. We're a competent chain, and both of you could stay with your original store. Or in David's case, we could re-train him and move him to one of our others. Either way, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. If we have to remain friendly competitors, that's okay by me."
Chuck rose under Brandy's baleful gaze. “Best of luck to you." He held out his hand.
Tina took it. “And to you. Thanks for explaining."
"Take care of yourself, okay?" he said, and left.
Tina immediately called her brother to verify. David's sheepish apology and admittance of the truth left Tina in even a more depressed mood. Her own brother had lied to her, yet he still wanted to sell out.
"David, I don't know what I want to do," Tina said quietly. "I need time to think. No, I don't want to talk about it any more. I have chores to do. Good-bye."
Tina set down the phone, left Brandy as company for Eric and Louise in the house, walked to the kennels, and waited for Paul's arrival for Lady's checkup. Prince was still in the hospital, but Lady was home. When he arrived, he put an arm around her shoulders with more than just easy camaraderie
"How are you, Tina?"
She gave him a wan smile. “Okay, I guess. Better than Eric or Louise."
"Come on, let's go see Lady."
To her horror, Tina blinked away tears. Eric tilted her chin to look into her face. “Hey, what is it?" he softly asked.
"Nothing. Everything." She told him about David, and their phone conversation. “And I still feel bad about the pups. I hate seeing Prince's empty cage. It's not the same without him."
"I know, honey. I know," he said, the words of endearment falling sweetly on Tina's ears. “He's getting better, slowly but surely. How's Lady doing?"
"Not good." Eric answered Paul's question. He had joined them.
"You should be resting," Tina said.
"No. Lady's my dog, and White Birches is my kennel. Paul, we need your help. Lady hasn't eaten all day. She seems ... "
"Sick?" Paul asked.
"Heartsick. I think she's given up."
"Oh, Eric, not Lady too!" Tina moaned. “Paul, can't you do something?"
The three slowly walked over to the kennels. On the inside sheltered portion, Lady listlessly stretched out her heated bed, her usually sparkling eyes dull.
"Hey, girl," Tina called out, but Lady only moved her ears, nothing else. Eric tried to coax her into standing, but Lady merely closed her eyes.
Tina wiped away tears as Paul entered Lady's kennel to examine her. Eric stood off to one side, his hands shoved helplessly in his pockets.
"I can't find anything wrong with her physically, at least without more tests," Paul said. “Darn, she seemed fine when I discharged her."
"I know this dog," Eric said, kneeling beside Paul. “I'd have known if she was sick, and this isn't it. She's missing Prince."
"If that's it, and coupled with a chemical post-pregnancy depression, more tests could make her worse," Paul warned. “What do you want to do, Eric? Treat her here, or back at the hospital?"
"I don't know. I just don't know."
Tina hated seeing the pain in his eyes. She stood motionless, one slim shoulder resting against one of the kennel steel supports as she racked her brain for a solution, shifting through all her years of experience with animals. "It just might work," she said to herself.
Eric looked up from his thoughts. “What did you say?"
"I have an idea!" Tina ran over her car.
"Where are you going?"
"I'll be right back! Tell Paul to wait for me!" Tina jumped into her car and started the engine. Within minutes she was on her way into town.
"Three-oh-five Harrison," she read aloud. "This must be it." Tina parked her car in the space marked "Reserved for Dog Shelter Patrons Only."
"Morning, ma'am," greeted the uniformed man at the desk. “May I help you?"
"Yes! I'd like some puppies. A whole litter if you have them."
The clerk looked at her closely. "Well, we just don't give them away like that!" He snapped his fingers. "We have to make sure you can take care of them properly, give them a good home and ... "
Tina interrupted, and explained her plan. “I work at White Birches Kennels," she concluded.
"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place? Right this way, please."
Tina followed him to the back rooms where the younger animals were kept.
"How about these little fellows?" He pointed to three curly masses of brown fur.
"They're only a week old. Their mother didn't survive, and we're bottle-feeding them until they're old enough to adopt. They're one hundred percent mutt, but cute enough." He opened the warming lid of their whelping box.
"I'll take them. I have a carrier and blankets out in the car."
"If things don't work out, bring them back here," the man said while she filled in the paperwork. “Good luck!"
I'll need it, Tina thought to herself. She drove home as the pups mewed softly. Eric waited as she pulled into the driveway and parked.
"Watch your ribs. I'll carry this box to the kennels myself. Is Paul still there?"
"Yes, but -- "
"I need some pine pitch, please. Can you peel me off some fresh bark? I'll meet you back at the kennels."
Tina and Eric rejoined and Paul at Lady's side. Jackie had joined them, and was puzzled when Eric returned with the bark. Tina scraped at it until she had sticky mass of pitch on the palm of her hands.
"Rub some of that on Lady's nose, and I'll rub some on the puppies," Tina ordered.
"Pups?" Paul echoed.
Tina opened the box. “Meet Tomasina, Dick and Harry."
"So that's what you're up to. Do you think it will work?" Paul asked, excitement suddenly evident as he deduced Tina's strategy.
"Will someone explain this to me?" Jackie asked.
"I read once with horses you can substitute a replacement foal for a stillborn one if you disguise the newcomer's strange smell," Tina said. “The pitch makes the foal smell like the mother, and that way she might accept a strange horse as her own. If we're lucky, maybe it will work with dogs, too." Tina lifted the pups -- hairless and their eyes still closed -- out of the box.
"Heavens, they're young!" Paul said. “Where did you get them?"
"At the dog shelter. They've been bottle-feeding them. Let's see if Lady takes them in."
They gave Lady a few minutes to adjust to her new smell. She made a few half-hearted efforts to try and lick the sticky gum off her nose, but soon gave up and was listless again.
"Well, here goes nothing." Tina rubbed a dab of pitch on the pups, and lifted and placed the helpless pups next to Lady.
All watched breathlessly as the three puppies rooted against Lady's underbelly. One of them whined with hunger, and Lady lifted her head, ears perked. Another pup started whining. Lady curled her lips in a snarl, but her reaction changed as she smelled the familiar odor of pitch on their coats. She rose to her chest, then to her feet. She grabbed one puppy by the scruff of the neck, and carried it off into an obscure corner. She then repeated the procedure with the other two, and began washing them all with her pink tongue.
Tina's hand stole into Paul's as they waited and watched. Lady finished washing the last pup, and headed for her water bowl for a short drink. She also took a few bites of food before returning to the corner. Lady then leisurely rolled on her side, nudged the pups close to her teats, and allowed the pups to take their first meal from their new mother.
"Tina, you did it!" Eric cried. He hugged Tina, Jackie and Louise, then shook Paul's hand vigorously. “Lady's going to be all right after all."
Eric held her hands tightly within his. “I knew you'd be good for this place the first time I met you."
Paul checked Lady's vital signs again. “Seems you have half of White Birches back for breeding after all," he said.
Louise started to slink away, but Eric caught her and held her tight in one arm. “Don't leave, Aunt Louise. We'll start again." Eric caught Jackie in his other arm. “All three of us."
Paul and Tina watched the trio head back for the house. “That's a happy family -- or soon will be," Paul predicted.
"They could have at least given the vet some credit here," Tina replied.
"Hey, and let's not forget the crackerjack dog handler either." Paul grinned as he closed Lady's gate and headed over to check on Prince. “We make a pretty good team, don't we."
"For now," Tina said quietly, thinking of her store, her business, and her own family, all in another state. I can't make any new commitments until I take care of my old ones. Like David and the pet store. If only things could work out.
As they watched Lady and her new family, neither dared voice any other wishes.
Tina crunched her teeth into a red apple, watching Louise make pies and jam. Louise was back to herself again, as were all the patients at White Birches. Louise had even picked the apples herself from the trees on Eric's land. Tina swiped one on her way outside to work Brandy.
Louise called out, "You'd better watch yourself, or you won't get a taste of the pie tonight!"
Tina laughed, happy to hear Louise so cheerful, and Louise relented and tossed her another apple for good measure.
The sun shone bright and strong, and the ground that had been muddy from the rain was now merely damp in a few shady spots. The storm had torn away some of the multi-colored leaves from the trees, and the thinning branches advertised the nearness of November and winter. Tina zipped her plaid wool jacket even higher, and snapped her fingers for Brandy, busily sniffing out some scent near the house.
"Come on, pup. You and I have some unfinished business. If you can win another show trial, I might have a chance at a new life." I could let David and the pet store join the chain, move to Maine, replace poor Prince with Brandy as White Birches main breeding sire, start a new job as a handler, and maybe, just maybe, start a new life with Paul. But not without a win, and the promise of a future. I won't go into any relationship empty-handed -- and if I have to stay in Maine, my dog stays with me.
"It's all up to us, boy. Just you and me."
Tina now spent all of her free time polishing off any rough areas of Brandy's agility performance. No one had bothered to question her training, nor did anyone suspect that Tina had signed up for the upcoming utility trials.
I have to do this alone.
Tina continued her work, unobserved and unquestioned. Jackie was busy with Eric in the office, trying to track down a new setter to replace Prince. The couple had finally confessed their love for each other in the hospital. But Eric refused to marry Jackie without a stable home and business for them both. So far the bloodlines of the canine prospects had been questionable, or the prices had been way too high. Eric had even switched to a lighter training schedule with his dogs until he could complete his task. Tina took care of the daily exercising.
Tina unlocked the kennel gate and let Lady and her new family out, smiling as the pups stumbled over one another to sniff her out. They were walking now, their eyes open, their coats filling in. Lady was even more beautiful than ever, for Tina had never seen Lady's sleek, pre-pregnancy lines.
"Hello, girl." Tina greeted her, and Lady pushed her head under Tina's arm to have her nose scratched. “How are your babies?"
The three puppies had grown considerably in the three weeks they had been under Lady's care. Tina guessed there was some cocker spaniel in them. The rest remained a mystery, but they had an appealing quality about them. Tina knew they would be well-behaved dogs with Lady's discipline.
"Come here, Harry," Tina coaxed the shy, smallest one. “Maybe your future owner can give you a better name than I did. I'll bet Louise could find you a good home."
Harry nuzzled close at her soft words, then yelped and ran to Lady for safety as Brandy barked his jealousy. Tina grinned with amusement, and a deep voice said behind her,
"What a determined dog you own." Tina recognized Eric's voice. “He reminds me of you."
"What are you doing out here? I thought you and Jackie were busy with paperwork."
"I needed a break, so I thought I'd check on Lady. I see you had the same idea."
"She's doing well, isn't she?" Tina's eyes followed Lady as she alertly lifted a chewing Tomasina away from her leather boot-toe.
"She is, and I have you to thank for it. Tina, I have something to ask you. I know the answer to this, but I have to ask it anyway. Would you to sell him to me?"
Tina shook her head. “I could never do that, Eric. Never. Not even for you and Jackie. You'll have to purchase another breeding male elsewhere."
Eric sighed. “Jackie did warn me. Still, at least I still have Prince. He's turning into a well-behaved a house dog, just like Brandy here."
Brandy wagged his tail as Eric petted him, then Eric picked up Dick and ruffled his fur. “Jackie told me you needed tomorrow off. That's no problem."
"Thanks. I have to go into town and -- uh -- take care of some things." And see if I've learned enough to do what you and Prince were meant to do. “If you don't mind a change of subject, how are you and Louise been doing? And I don't mean your health, either."
Eric smiled. “Good. Jackie's been a big help smoothing things out. I have my aunt back, and Prince and Lady are still alive. Louise and I have vowed to try to save all our puppies, whether they're papered, mutts, or sickly. What Louise did was wrong, but her heart was in the right place."
Tina nodded. “All life should be respected. If I didn't feel that way ... "
"You wouldn't have Brandy," Eric observed. “I guess you'll be leaving us soon?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Louise and I are back on our feet, so don't stay here on our account. I know your store needs you. Though I want you to understand, Tina, none of us wants you to go. Not even Arleen."
"Yes. Louise and Arleen's father are old friends. If you hadn't come to look for us, who knows how long Louise and Prince would have been trapped in that car?"
"I'm glad you're all okay." Tina exhaled, anxious to rid herself unpleasant memory of the car crash. “And don't worry about me. I've got some irons in the fire."
Eric sat down on the dead grass. “Want to tell me about it?" His brown eyes looked directly at her as Tina continued to play with the puppies.
Tina absently stroked the puppy's soft belly. “Not much to tell. I'm still trying to sort things out."
Eric nodded. “Sometimes that can be a lonely and frightening thing."
Tina looked up with surprise at his perception. “Yes, but how did you know?"
"Sometimes we think life is more complex than it is. Each of us simply needs to go after what we know is right, and never give up."
"I know what you mean," Tina agreed.
"Jackie told me about your pet store problems with Chuck Warner. I hope you're able to save your business."
"Thanks, Eric. You're very kind." Tina drew up her knees under her chin and hugged them with her arms, to the disappointment of Tomasina, who lost a warm lap.
"You do know I asked Jackie to marry me?" Eric asked.
Tina nodded. “Yes. I'm so happy for you both. When's the wedding day?"
"We don't know. Before Christmas, if I can get the business back on its feet by then."
"Fingers crossed." For all of us.
Tina stood up to return Lady and her pups to their kennel. Eric joined her, and after futilely chasing a playful Harry, a watchful Lady cornered him and grabbed him by the neck.
"Thanks, girl," he said. “You make a better mother than I do. I guess it's time for all of us to get back to work."
Eric locked up the pen, then walked back to the house. Tina brushed the grass off of the seat of her jeans, and called to her dog.
"Come on, Brandy. We have work to do."
The next afternoon, the day of the agility trials, arrived quickly. Tina quietly finished brushing Brandy's coat, and put him in the car, safely away from the dirt and leaves. She then went back inside and inspected herself in the bedroom, making certain that her brown corduroy pants and brown plaid wool shirt were spotless. As she ran a brush through her hair, she compared this show with her last one.
So much is riding on this show. I hope I have better luck than Eric and poor Prince had. I want to stay here and help White Birches as a business partner, not just as hired help. I want to stay near Paul, too. He's a man I admire -- a man I'm beginning to love.
Tina arrived at the trials with time to register and some to spare. She led Brandy over to their appointed area. He waited at her side with uncharacteristic quiet. He'd picked up on Tina's single-minded seriousness of purpose, and quickly settled down for his upcoming work. Tina noted his attitude, and smiled to herself. This was one contest where she wouldn't have to reassure her dog with constant petting and whispers.
Her number was one of the first ones called. She unfastened Brandy's lead as they started out toward their designated patch of land. Brandy moved in and out of the brush, searching for the hidden dumbbell with Tina's scent.
Brandy followed every command she gave him, and eagerly covered every area she pointed toward. Other owners and their dogs were visible, and Tina was gratified to find that Brandy made less noise than some of the other dogs, who bounded noisily though dead leaves, risking the possibility of missing their dumbbells.
Other tests followed. Running, jumping, tunneling and other agility tests separated the true canine athletes from those who needed more conditioning. The afternoon drew to a close. The dogs were either eliminated by default, or allowed to leave the field after finishing their rounds cleanly. Only a few dogs, along with Tina's, were left with a chance to win.
The three had one last run through the agility course. The handlers were tense, as was Tina. Tina thought of her friends and family-how they needed her help which only she could provide.
She watched an Australian border collie run the agility course with no hesitation at all. Next a German shepherd and his police officer handler tackled the course. Both times were fractions of seconds apart. Their performance was flawless.
Tina gazed into the crowd, and saw Paul. He waved at her, and gave her a thumbs up.
Prince must be much better if Paul's here!
She felt warmth and renewed strength flow into her.
I believe in you, Brandy. I believe in myself, too. We're fighters, remember? Let's do it for both of us!
She and her dog paused at the start of the agility trial, waiting for the signal to tackle jumps, ramps, bridges, tunnels, and other obstacles. The seconds ticked off, then the GO buzzer sounded!
They were off, Tina running alongside Brandy and shouting commands. Brandy's long legs flashed mahogany as he followed her orders. Not once did he hesitate throughout the difficult commands and obstacles. He raced up, over, and down the A-frame ramps, stopped where stops were required, dashed through tunnels, placed his feet on the targeted areas of the course -- almost a dog's version of hopscotch -- kept his balance atop the dog's balance beam, wove in and out of the row of stakes, and flew like the wind over the fence jumps.
When they finished the course and ran for the finish line, Tina knew she and her dog had done their absolute best.
The judges posted her time. She and Brandy won -- by a full half a second!
Tina didn't know what started her eyes overflowing with happy tears: the blue ribbon, Brandy's happy barking, or Paul's congratulatory kiss.
Maybe it was all three.
July's summer sun glinted off three canine bodies of shining Irish red. Tina and Paul, Brandy in tow, spotted Eric and Jackie in the wooden patio swing, with Lady and Prince lying at their feet on the wooden deck beneath her.
"Hello!" Tina sang out.
"Tina!" Jackie's face lit up with welcome. “I'm so glad to see you! Come and sit down," she said, gesturing toward the space beside her on the bench. “And how does married life agree with you, newlywed?"
Tina blushed an appealing pink as Paul slung his arm around the waist of his new bride. “Very well, thank-you," Tina said. “I can see it's agreeing with you."
She looked down toward the ruffled maternity top that Jackie was wearing, for Jackie and Eric had married in November. “When is the little bundle of joy due to arrive?"
"Next month, but then you should know that! Or do you two talk of other things besides your future godchild?"
Tina blushed again.
"Maybe," was all her new husband would say.
"How are David and the pet store doing?" Eric asked Tina.
"Very well, thank-you. Selling to the chain was good for David, and good for the store. David likes his new independent life, and I love being a professional dog handler. And vet's wife."
"Speaking of vets," Paul said. “I'm here on official business. The results are in. It seems Jackie here isn't the only one expecting. Lady's joined the club, too."
"Why Brandy, you old devil!" Jackie laughed. Brandy perked his ears, then made his way to Tina's side.
"Looks like White Birches is back in business, thanks to my new female partners," Eric said with a smile for Jackie and Tina. “And one very special dog."
Brandy's champion wins were stacking up, and insuring the future of White Birches Kennels. With puppies from him and Lady, already a grand champion, Eric would have nothing to fear from any competitors. Tina already hoped to show Brandy at Westminster next year.
"I wish you all the happiness in the world, Tina," Jackie said. “Eric and White Birches wouldn't be back on his feet if it wasn't for you."
"Don't forget Louise, who saved Brandy in the first place," Tina said, "Or none of us would have met. Here she is now."
Louise approached them, Tomasina, Dick and Harry frolicking at her feet. She had a new job now -- taking Lady's adopted puppies to the local children's hospitals and nursing homes, where they were good therapy for sick children and retired seniors. Paul provided free care and spaying or neutering for any dogs that provided comfort to the sick. Arleen herself was advertising the "pet-therapy" project through her feed store.
According to the town grapevine, Arleen was also busy promoting animal rights and pet-therapy through Chuck's pet store chain. He'd transferred to their Boston office, and was a frequent visitor at her father's club.
Brandy, Prince, Lady, Tomasina, Dick, and Harry all vied for attention. Five people happily obliged.
"I told you we make a good team," Paul whispered. He came up behind Tina and laid his broad tanned hands on her shoulders. She pressed her cheek against one of them in a gesture of tenderness. “It's going to be a great summer," he said. “With no mysteries.”
Tina smiled, her love flowing out to her husband and friends, two-legged and four. “It is," she agreed.
But I'll never forget the mystery at White Birches Kennels.