Ally Winter is going through a ruff patch. The thirty-something veterinarian lost her fiancé, her clinic, and her savings in rapid succession. So when Ally's grandfather undergoes hip-replacement surgery, she moves back to Willow Bluff, Wisconsin, to care for him. She arrives home, tail between her legs, only to find sleazy lawyer Marty Shawlin murdered in his home office. And the only witness was Marty's faithful boxer, Roxy. Quick as a greyhound, Noah Jorgensen is on the case. The good news is that he's the best detective around. The bad news, at least the way Ally sees it, is that Noah is still just as fetching as he was back in high school. He also just happens to have witnessed every embarrassing incident that befell accident-prone Ally—including the fire-ant attack that set tongues wagging and won her the unshakable nickname Hot Pants. Meanwhile, true-crime aficionado Gramps fancies himself a sleuth, and he is doggedly determined to sniff out the culprit himself... with Ally's reluctant help, of course. Ally has no choice but to team up with Noah—and the irrepressible Roxy—to solve the case while keeping Gramps on a short leash. Ally had better learn some new tricks, lickety-split, because if she can't bring the killer to heel, she won't just be playing dead.
Release date: July 13, 2021
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Print pages: 320
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) female sleuth (1) quirky supporting cast (1)
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Dogged by Death
Ally Winter parked in front of the Willow Bluff Legacy House, the modest assisted living ranch home her grandfather had moved into two months ago after undergoing hip replacement surgery. The regal Lannon stone-wrapped home had aged well, just like her grandfather. She picked up the container of brownies she’d made earlier that morning, slid out from behind the wheel, and approached the front door.
“Are you deaf? I told you to get outta here!”
Gramps’ raised voice drifted through the open windows of the Legacy House, named for being located on Legacy Drive. What in the world was going on? Who was Gramps yelling at?
“I can stay, Lydia invited me,” came another, somewhat whiny, voice.
“Well, I’m uninviting you! Get out and stay out!”
Ally quickened her pace, anxious to get inside to see what was happening, but before she could lift her hand to knock, the door opened, revealing a paunchy bald man wearing thick glasses with dark tufts of hair poking out around his ears. He looked harried as he edged past her. His leather briefcase banged against her thigh, but he didn’t appear to notice.
She stared after him for a moment, wondering what had just transpired. The paunchy guy made a beeline for his tan sedan, tossed the leather briefcase on the passenger seat, then wedged himself behind the wheel. Seconds later, he was gone.
“Ally!” She turned back to see a tall, large-boned rectangle-shaped woman with a halo of tightly wound gray curls framing her face. Harriet Lehmann always wore brightly flowered dresses, support hose, and sensible sturdy black shoes, and today was no exception. Harriet beamed from her stance in the doorway. “It’s lovely to see you!”
“Hi, Harriet.” The woman’s enthusiastic greeting made it sound as if Ally hadn’t been there in months, when in fact she’d stopped by the day before yesterday during her Saturday lunch break from the Furry Friends Veterinary Clinic she had recently purchased from the previous owner, Gregory Hanson. This time she’d own and operate the business all on her own.
At least, attempt to operate. Lack of clientele was a bit of a problem at the moment.
“Who was that guy?” Ally asked.
“No one important, dear. Come in, come in.” Harriet opened the door wider. “Oscar is in the kitchen. Oh, you brought dessert.” Her smile faltered. Ally knew the older woman believed her sole purpose in life was to keep Gramps fed, and she didn’t take kindly to anyone else cooking or baking for him. “Well, now, that wasn’t necessary. I made a delicious apple crisp for tonight, and you know that’s one of Oscar’s favorites.”
“Gramps likes brownies, too.” Ally glanced past Harriet to see the other two residents, Tillie Carbine and Lydia Schneider, sitting near her grandfather. Both Tillie and Lydia had white hair, Lydia’s curly and Tillie’s straight. All four elders were widowed and shared the three-bedroom ranch that had been turned into an assisted living space by the owner, Beatrice Potter. Tillie and Harriet were sisters who shared the large master bedroom, while Lydia and Gramps each had their own rooms.
Gramps privately referred to the three women as the Willow Bluff Widows. They were constantly trying to outdo each other in getting Gramps’ attention. Harriet cooked and baked, Tillie played a mean game of cribbage and poker, while Lydia knitted him anything from hats to sweaters. Despite all the female attention, he’d privately confided to her that no one could replace Amelia, his late beloved wife of fifty-five years. Granny had been gone for two years now, but Gramps insisted he’d never love anyone else.
No matter how hard the Willow Bluff Widows tried to convince him otherwise.
“Ally!” Gramps didn’t get up from his seat at the table but glanced at her with a smile. He wore his usual attire of khaki slacks and a short-sleeved blue button-down shirt, with a white T-shirt underneath. In the winter the short-sleeved shirts would be replaced with long-sleeved flannels. But never once in her entire life had she seen Gramps wearing blue jeans. “I’m glad you stopped by.”
“Always for you, Gramps.” She crossed over to squeeze his shoulders in a hug, pressing a kiss to the top of his military cut silver hair. “I brought brownies.”
“I’ll take those.” Harriet whisked the container away and Ally wondered if the widow might toss them in the garbage rather than serve them to Gramps. “We’ll have the apple crisp for dessert tonight, Oscar, and save the brownies for tomorrow.”
“Sure, Harriet.” Gramps winked at Ally, and she knew that was his way of saying he’d have both a brownie and an apple crisp for dessert. He had a crazy sweet tooth, which she’d inherited, but unlike herself, Gramps never seemed to gain an ounce. Her grandfather was tall, about six feet in his prime but having lost an inch or so along the way, with a lean frame and a handsomeness that couldn’t be denied. At seventy-eight, he’d been the picture of health until he’d slipped and fallen on a patch of ice, breaking his hip. After his surgery in April and a stay at the rehab facility through May, Gramps had ended up here at the Willow Bluff Legacy House as his doctors didn’t want him left alone for any length of time. Gramps considered this move a temporary solution, but Ally suspected it was likely permanent.
Even if Gramps didn’t decide to marry one of the widows—and in her opinion the jury was still out on that—her schedule at the veterinary clinic was too unpredictable for her to care for him the way the widows could. Plus she lived in an upper-level apartment, and the stairs would be impossible for him to navigate.
“Who was that guy you were yelling at?” Ally swept her gaze over the four retirees. “What did he want?”
“Nothing important,” Gramps waved a hand, downplaying the interaction.
“We’re just fine, nothing for you to worry about, dear,” Harriet assured her. Lydia and Tillie just glanced at each other without saying a word.
“Let’s go into the living room.” Gramps reached for his despised walker.
Knowing Gramps couldn’t be rushed into telling the story, she helped him stand, then followed him into the living area. The three widows whispered in the kitchen, no doubt bickering over who was going to do what for Gramps once Ally was gone.
Gramps gingerly eased down onto the sofa. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, young lady.”
“I told you I’d come by this afternoon.” She dropped onto the sofa beside him. “Unfortunately, I can’t stay too long, I have an appointment at five thirty.”
“A client!” Gramps blue eyes twinkled. “That’s good news.”
“Yes.” She raked a hand through her dark curly hair that was constantly springing out of control. She often thought of herself as having poodle hair, naturally curly and untamable. “One of the locals needs me to do some dog walking for him the rest of the week.”
“Don’t worry, your veterinary business will pick up.”
Ally had known small-town Willow Bluff wouldn’t be as busy as Madison when it came to needing veterinary services, but the current pace was slower than she’d expected. She’d been there for six weeks but it felt more like six years. Having grown up in Willow Bluff, she thought maybe some of the townsfolk still saw her as the walking teenage disaster they once knew, rather than the experienced thirty-one-year-old veterinarian she was now.
Two previous incidents—one where she’d accidently set the chemistry lab on fire, followed a few months later by inadvertently sitting on a nest of fire ants, which had sent her screaming, yanking off her denim shorts, and jumping into Lake Michigan—had given her the dreaded nickname. Hot Pants.
The memory still filled her with embarrassment. Returning home to Willow Bluff under scandalous circumstances didn’t help her image any. Her former veterinary partner and fiancé, Tim Mathai, had embezzled from the Mathai-Winter Veterinary Clinic they’d owned jointly in Madison, Wisconsin. She hadn’t realized what Tim had done until after he’d taken all the money out of their joint business account and fled the country to Mexico with Trina, the sweet young veterinary assistant he’d been sleeping with on the side. Ally had managed to sell the building to break even, then had to sell her home to pay off her credit cards, leaving her just enough money to buy Hanson’s business and start over here in Willow Bluff.
Some of the local pet owners had come around, which was good. She’d had a client come in earlier that morning who had been satisfied with her services. More would trickle in, she was sure. And she preferred running the business herself, accounting for every nickel, dime, and penny she earned. Not that it amounted to much. Yet. But on top of offering veterinary services, she offered grooming services—thanks to learning the skill during her college days—boarding, and now dog-walking services for extra income.
No job too small was her new motto.
“This town is lucky to have you, Ally.” Gramps patted her knee.
“Thanks.” She leaned closer and dropped her voice. “How are things going with the WBWs?”
Her grandfather grimaced. “Drives me crazy the way they hover over me like flies on red meat.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be so charming.” The statement was mostly a joke, as her granddad was not known for his charm. Gramps tended to be blunt and to the point, but apparently the widows didn’t need much, if any, encouragement. “Hey, they keep you fed, warm, and entertained.”
A ghost of a smile played across his face. “Can’t deny it. Harriet is a good cook, although your grandmother was much better.”
“Aw, that’s sweet.” She should have realized a long time ago that Tim wasn’t anything like her father and grandfather. Men who were strong and smart, dedicated and faithful to the women they’d loved.
Tim Mathai was the antithesis of her grandfather in every way.
“You remind me of Amelia,” Gramps voice dropped, a wistful expression in his blue eyes. “Smart and sassy.”
She grinned. “I’ll take that comparison any day. Now seriously, Gramps, tell me what happened with the guy you kicked out. I heard you yelling, so don’t tell me it was nothing.”
He let out a huff. “That idiot lawyer was trying to get the widows to change their wills into some sort of trust, for a fee, of course. I didn’t like him, so I booted him out.”
“You think he was trying to pull a fast one with the widows?” Her protective instincts flashed on full alert. The older generation were often a target for those trying to scam them out of their hard-earned retirement funds. “You should have told me he was coming. I’d have been here with you.”
“Think I can’t take care of myself?” Gramps’s tone was testy. “He wasn’t here to talk to me. Lydia invited him.” He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not saying he was up to no good, but I don’t see a reason for Lydia, or any of the widows, to change their wills into trusts at this point. He was slimy, like a used car salesman. Nothing to worry about, though. The way he scuttled out of here proves he’s harmless.”
She wasn’t reassured. “Okay, but I could check him out a bit, if you think that would help.”
“Nah. Don’t think he’ll come back any time soon.” Gramps puffed out his chest. “I’m telling you—those widows would be lost without me.”
That made her smile. “Yes, they would.”
“I warned them to be careful or they’d end up as the next murder victim featured on an upcoming Dateline episode.”
She worried a bit about her grandfather’s preoccupation with crime. Gramps was a Vietnam vet and had owned a construction company for years before he’d sold the business and retired. He’d never worked in law enforcement, not that his lack of experience in the field seemed to stop him from speculating. He scoured the news for the latest stories and ventured to the library on a weekly outing to pick up large-print true crime novels.
“I’ve told you before, you need better hobbies. Speaking of which, what time are you and Tillie playing cribbage?”
He glanced at his watch and looked glum. “After dinner, but there’s no rush. I got more time than I know what to do with.”
“I know.” She leaned over and hugged him. “How about I drive you to the library on Wednesday? We’ll have lunch at the Lakeview Café.”
Gramps brightened, his blue eyes, older and wiser replicas of her own, sparked with interest. “Deal. I look forward to it.”
“Great.” She slowly rose to her feet and placed his walker in front of him. “I have to run, but I’ll check in with you tomorrow, too.”
“You don’t need to come every day,” he protested. He let her help him up to his feet. “I know how to call you on that pocket thingy you bought me.”
“It’s a cell phone, Gramps.” One which he did not know how to use correctly, as he always yelled into it. “And the point of me coming back to Willow Bluff in the first place was so I could stop in to see you all the time. It’s no trouble.”
“Bah.” He sounded cranky again, and she knew part of that was related to the ongoing pain in his hip when he walked. But he didn’t complain. Gramps was a proud man and refused to be thought of as anything less than the soldier he once was. “You need to find a young man to spend your time with, not an old geezer like me.”
“I prefer spending time with you, Gramps.” She’d glossed over the details of her broken engagement and Tim and Trina’s betrayal, but her granddad was sharp. He’d no doubt put the puzzle pieces together. “Men are highly overrated.”
“Some men,” he agreed. “But not all.”
She let it go. As they entered the kitchen, there was a hint of bacon in the air, along with a variety of other enticing scents. Her mouth watered. “Harriet, something smells amazing.”
“I’m making an Old World German recipe handed down to me from my mother. Beef rouladen.”
She sniffed the air appreciatively. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“I pound round steak until it’s thin, and then roll it into balls with steamed carrots, celery, bacon. and dill pickles tucked inside.” Harriet smiled mischievously as if she possessed the secrets needed to entice her grandfather into being the next Mr. Harriet Lehman. “Then I braise them in my own special wine sauce to add a bit of extra flavor.”
“You’re welcome to join us,” Gramps offered.
It was beyond tempting; lately she’d been eating more ramen noodles than she cared to admit, but she shook her head. “No, as I mentioned, I have a client coming in.”
The meal sounded incredible, but she knew that if she began eating Harriet’s meals, the woman would use that as favoritism to make even a bigger play for Gramps. It was the same reason she’d resisted Tillie’s request to join them for cribbage and Lydia’s offer to teach her to knit. Safer to stay out of the widows’ way.
“Maybe next time. Bye!” Ally lifted a hand as she headed to the door.
The ride from the Legacy House back into town didn’t take long. She’d just unlocked and entered her clinic when another car pulled up. She stopped short when she recognized the guy sliding out from behind the wheel. It was the same paunchy bald man with thick glasses. He wasn’t holding a briefcase this time, but rather a dog leash attached to a beautiful golden-brown female boxer with a dark face and wide curious eyes.
The idiot lawyer? Interesting—she wouldn’t have pegged him as a dog owner. Normally she felt as if pet owners were trustworthy, but maybe not in this case. She forced a smile. “Good afternoon, I’m Dr. Winter.”
“Marty Shawlin.” He didn’t seem to recognize her as being at the Legacy House earlier. Had he been too flustered by Gramps yelling at him to pay attention? Then again, some people didn’t look past the white lab coat. “And this is Roxy.”
“Hey, Roxy.” She grinned when Roxy wagged her stubby tail in greeting. Ally didn’t like the tradition of cropping tails but knew it was still a common practice. She offered Roxy her hand, letting her give it a good sniff, before attempting to pet her silky fur. “She’s a beauty.”
“Yes. I agreed to watch her for the week my ex-wife is traveling out of town.” Marty met her gaze. “I really could use your dog-walking services. Maybe an hour each day at lunchtime?”
“Of course.” She loved dogs, so that wasn’t a problem. And there was no denying she was curious to learn more about Marty Shawlin. “Will I need a key to get in?”
Marty hesitated, then shook his head. “I’ll give you my address and the code to my garage. I keep Roxy crated in the kitchen while I’m at work.”
She jotted the information on a notepad, then held out her hand for the leash. “I’d like to take her out for a quick minute, just so that she gets used to me and isn’t surprised when I show up tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Marty seemed glad to hand Roxy over.
She led Roxy outside and down the street. The boxer gazed around with interest. “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a guy like that?”
Roxy didn’t answer, but that was okay. She didn’t mind her one-sided conversations with pets. Besides, as Roxy’s dog walker for the rest of the week, she’d have plenty of time to snoop around a bit.
Maybe she’d find out what Marty Shawlin was really up to when he’d made that appointment with Lydia.
Like Gramps, she didn’t take kindly to anyone messing with the Willow Bluff Widows.
The next morning, Ally dragged herself into the kitchen for coffee. She hadn’t slept well, her thoughts bouncing between the sleazy lawyer and his attempt to do business with the widows, to her less than optimal volume of veterinary clients.
She’d have to go through Hanson’s client list again; she had a feeling he might have padded it a bit. But since there wasn’t any way to change the past, she needed to stay focused on the future. There had to be something she could do to increase her business, but her creative muse seemed to have taken a hiatus. Maybe it had flown away to Ireland and Scotland with her parents. They were both professors at a private university located about twenty minutes outside Willow Bluff. Over the past few years, they’d taken to traveling every summer. Ally was happy for them, even though she would have liked to talk things through with her mom right about now.
Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal, heated in a microwave that was older than she was. Looking out the window, she could see pedestrians meandering up and down Main Street. She was temporarily living in the small apartment above the clinic, a space that the former owner used to rent out for additional income. Maybe one day she’d make enough money to get a place of her own and could do the same.
For now, she needed to find a way to come up with the next mortgage and business loan payment, which included the building housing her clinic and the upper-level apartment, along with the money she’d paid Hanson for his client list. Based on Hanson’s client list and his balance sheet, she should be doing okay. Her only competition was a clinic over in Sheboygan, a good twenty-five minutes away on a good day with no traffic. She couldn’t imagine the townsfolk preferring to travel that far for services conveniently offered right here in town.
Dog walking was fine, but she’d been hoping for a busier clinic day to day. At least Marty had paid for her services up front.
She wasn’t due to walk Roxy until noon, so she finished her breakfast and headed downstairs to the clinic. The emptiness of the place hit hard.
For a moment she thought about how busy she and Tim had been in Madison, with furry patients slotted in every hour from open to close, with the occasional emergency call coming in.
A far cry from the vacant space surrounding her now.
Had coming here been a mistake? Picking up a rag, she began to clean. After finishing the two exam rooms, the third having been turned into a grooming suite, she began wiping down the front desk. When the door opened, she turned and glanced over in surprise. A young girl roughly ten years old with tears in her wide brown eyes held an oddly colored black and white speckled cat that appeared to be having some trouble breathing.
“Can you please help Pepper?” The child’s tone was full of fear and worry. “She’s sick.”
“Of course, come this way.” She led the little girl and Pepper to the first exam room. “What’s your name? Where’s your mommy or daddy?”
Yeah, so not helpful. But there was no way to ignore the poor cat’s plight. The animal was breathing fast and needed immediate care. “Here, let me take Pepper into the back room, I need to give her some oxygen.”
“Okay.” The girl handed Pepper over, and it was a testament to how badly the cat must have been feeling that the animal didn’t struggle or dig in with her claws.
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