Authors: Laurinda Wallace
Haley jumped on the bed as Gracie gratefully sank under the warmth of the down comforter and flannel sheets. The house was quiet, and she hoped Terry and her dogs were asleep. Her cell phone buzzed softly that a text message was waiting. Wearily she grabbed the phone from the nightstand and looked at the screen. The message was from her brother.
“Dan’s looking at arson. Talk to you tomorrow.”
Gracie was just taking a pan of scrambled eggs off the gas range when Tom stomped through the kitchen door. An arctic wind blew in with him. It lowered the room temperature immediately. Snow fell in clumps from his insulated boots.
“Shut that door. The eggs will freeze over before I get them on the table.”
“I’m shutting it! It’s only five above this morning.” Tom pulled off his gloves and slipped off his snowy boots on the welcome mat.
“No wonder I can’t get warm. I wish this cold snap would end. It’s been over a week. There’s gotta be a thaw soon, so the sap can run.” Gracie set the large cast iron pan on a trivet next to her plate. She was dreaming of maple cream and stacks of buckwheat pancakes dripping with amber syrup.
“Don’t count on it. How are your guests this morning?”
“Still sleeping, I think. They need all the rest they can get I would think. Terry has a lot to face when she goes back to the house today.”
“No kidding. The house is a total loss, but her car is OK. It’s a good thing the garage was detached.” Tom’s face was grim.
“I’m glad she’ll have a car. I don’t think she’ll be able to salvage much of anything from the house.”
“It’s a total loss. I hope she had some renter’s insurance, or maybe her landlord has something.” Tom’s face was furrowed with concern.
“I’m not sure who owns that house anymore. You want some breakfast?” Gracie pushed two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster.
“You talked me into it.” Tom grabbed a plate from the cupboard and quickly filled his plate with eggs. Gracie poured two mugs of coffee. There was a muffled bark from outside the patio doors.
“Rats. Poor Haley. I forgot about her being outside.” Gracie hurried to let the snow-covered black Lab in through the sliding door.
“Some dog lover, you are. Leaving her out there to freeze to death.” Tom teased his sister and sipped the hot black coffee. His brown eyes twinkled with familiar humor. Gracie noticed that his red hair was beginning to get some length and not so closely cropped.
“Yeah, yeah. Labs love this kind of weather. Plus she was only out there for five minutes. What’s the deal with arson?”
“It’s procedure. They look at everything.”
A sleepy Terry Castor and her two large furry companions walked slowly toward the kitchen. Max and Sable looked as worn as their mistress. The big dogs stayed only inches away from Terry. The smell of smoke still clung heavily to the dogs, and Gracie wrinkled her nose. She guessed that Marian had her work cut out for her today.
“Good morning. Is there a place I can let my dogs out?” Terry’s drawn and pale face was smudged with sleep.
“Sure. They can go out through the patio. It’s all fenced, so they’ll be safe.” Gracie slid off her stool to open the door. Haley quickly went ahead to lead the way. The dogs perked up when the frigid air hit their faces. Within seconds the trio was sniffing and digging in the snowdrifts. Terry was quiet, watching the dogs play in the deep snow of Gracie’s backyard. Tom and Gracie fell awkwardly silent. Gracie cleared her throat and began talking about the rabbits that must be keeping the dogs busy in the backyard.
“Are you ready for some breakfast?” Gracie asked lightheartedly.
“Sure. I guess. I’m still pretty foggy from last night.” Terry ran her hands through her short buckwheat colored hair. “I hope I can get the smell of smoke out of my nose and my hair. The dogs really need some work.”
“Eggs and coffee will help clear the cobwebs. Don’t worry about the dogs. My groomer Marian will have them spiffed up in no time.” Gracie smiled as she pulled another plate from the cupboard and efficiently set a place at the counter.
“I don’t know how to thank you for the hospitality. It’s not everybody that would take in two dogs.” Terry sank onto the bar stool and began eating with gusto.
“Dogs are my business, so I’d be a pretty shoddy kennel owner if I didn’t take you in. Plus, Haley thinks it’s great to have a sleepover.” Gracie laughed easily and finished her coffee.
“Looks like Jim made it this morning,” Tom observed from his seat. A large black SUV plunged through a couple of drifts in the driveway, making a new path with the front plow through the ever-deepening snow.
“Good. He can start plowing out the parking lot. It’s almost filled in again.”
“I’ll go give him a hand. How many dogs are here right now?” He shoved his plate toward the center of the counter and stood.
“Fifty-five as of last night. Everybody’s flying out to the Bahamas or Florida to get away from this brutal winter.”
Tom was zipping up his brown Carhartt jacket when Jim Taylor knocked. He tramped through the door with another blast of frigid air. Jim was tall with a strong jawline, black hair, and startling blue eyes. He had his Carhartt overalls on too, ready for anything the weather could dish out. The outerwear was Western New York’s winter uniform. It blocked the wind, and the thick, quilted lining kept a person warm when the temperatures plunged into the teens and below.
Jim still had the boyish good looks he’d had in high school. He was Gracie’s business partner and had also been her husband’s best friend and business partner until a farm accident took Michael’s life two and half years ago. After a shaky start the previous spring, Milky Way Kennels was now humming along with steady customers. Gracie and Jim were planning to build an indoor obedience ring once spring showed up in Wyoming County. It would be another couple of months before they could even think about it.
“It’s terrible out there this morning.” Jim pulled off thick leather gloves and knocked the snow off his insulated farm boots. “I’m sure glad we’re not milking cows.”
“No kidding. Not supposed to get much warmer than what it is right now.” Tom grimaced. “I’ll give you a hand with the driveway, if you want.”
“Sure. I’ll plow, and you can get the detail with the snow blower.”
The men returned to the frozen world outside. A small swirl of snowflakes spiraled through the kitchen door. Gracie was anxious to get to the kennel and print off the schedules for the day, but she didn’t want to leave the haggard woman, who looked so vulnerable, sitting by herself. Then again, maybe she wanted some time to herself. The news she’d hear today wouldn’t be pleasant.
“If you don’t mind, I’m heading out to the kennel to get things rolling. I’ll be back in awhile. Just make yourself at home. I’ll take Haley with me too, so your dogs can eat without distraction.”
“Thanks, Gracie. I really appreciate that. Max and Sable are pretty messed up right now, so it would be good to have a little more down time for them.”
“Good. Take your time.” Gracie grabbed her parka and slid the patio door open for the dogs that were panting and pressing their noses against the glass.
“Food is in the bin by the door. There are some extra bowls in the bottom cupboard next to it.” Gracie pulled her gloves on and steeled herself for the blast of cold air. Haley was at her heels.
After booting up her computer in the office, Gracie began turning on lights and getting the reception area ready. It was now a familiar work rhythm, which set the day comfortably in motion for her. The printer slid the schedule off into a neat stack in the paper tray. Grooming appointments were light, but there were several pick ups and drop offs today. It looked like Marian would have lots of time to bathe and spoil Terry’s dogs. The steady advancing and backing of Jim’s SUV told her that there was progress on the driveway. The winter wind perpetually clogged the large circular driveway with lots of snow. The parking area was also a challenge to keep clear. No doubt Jim would have to plow at least a couple more times today, if it kept snowing. The dogs were barking their greetings to her and Haley as she began checking runs to make sure that Milky Way’s guests were comfy and warm. There was quite an assortment this week. A massive, gentle Irish wolfhound named Patrick was enjoying the extreme comfort of one of their deluxe suites. It was the size of a small living room, complete with a large sofa for lounging, TV, and end tables for that homey look. A faux fireplace completed the picture. His owners were lying on Puerto Rico’s beaches at the moment and wouldn’t be back for two weeks. They’d made sure Patrick was very comfortable while they were gone. He had a huge supply of toys in a wicker basket and a bucket of Milky Way Kennel’s gourmet treats. Patrick greeted her with a happy bark, eagerly taking a treat from Gracie’s hand, and running back to sprawl on the sofa. The other deluxe suite housed Simon, a Pomeranian with attitude. He was a namesake for the
judge. He couldn’t quite make the leap to the sofa, so Gracie had added a set of small steps that allowed the little dog some dignity. His owners had gone to Florida to visit family for three weeks. Someone in the family was allergic to dogs, so Simon was enjoying his own vacation. He sniffed at the treat and didn’t take it until Gracie tossed it onto the floor. She laughed at his aloofness. The rest of the pack was housed in standard runs with soft beds. All were anxious for their breakfasts and happy to see Gracie. A beagle named Snoopy starting baying when Gracie and Haley approached. His tail was wagging furiously, and he bounced on his hind legs for more attention. Haley gave him a reproving sniff to cut the noise and continued toward the reception area.
Marian came stomping through the front door, knocking snow off her boots.
“Good morning, Gracie. What a bitter day!” The tall, blond heavyset woman pulled off blue and white patterned mittens.
“No kidding. I don’t think it’s ever going to stop snowing or warm up.”
“My old bones hate the cold. The husband is telling me to retire again, so we can spend the winter in Florida.” She hung her long woolen coat on one of the hooks in Gracie’s office.
“Don’t do that. Shuffleboard and bridge. You wouldn’t last a week.”
Gracie knew Marian wasn’t about to hightail it to Florida. She’d come out of retirement last summer to help Gracie and was hooked on dogs. Her husband Al, however, was ready to head south and was pushing hard to get Marian to see it his way.
“I know. Hanging out with old people is no fun. That’s why I work. Al is cranky and underfoot all day. He’s addicted to
now. He needs a job, but he just won’t admit it.”
“You could spend a couple of weeks down there and try it, I guess. Grooming is pretty light in the winter. Your bones would thaw out.” Gracie laughed as Marian arched her eyebrows and huffed.
“Maybe next year. Right now, I’m happy with the dog business.” Marian pushed back her short blond hair and pulled the grooming apron over her thick red cable-knit sweater. “Is the schedule up yet?”
“It’s on the wall, but I need to add two German shepherds to that.”
“Shepherds. What a treat. They’re my favorites.”
Whatever dog was added to the schedule was always a favorite of Marian’s. There wasn’t a dog that had not warmed up to the kind, but firm woman in the months she’d been at Milky Way.
Jim and Tom came tramping through the door, setting the small bell at the top jingling.
“Chief, this is the worst winter ever.” Jim’s face was bright red with cold. “Got any coffee ready yet?”
“Oops. I’ve been visiting and forgot. I’ll get it going.” Coffee was the elixir of life for the Milky Way crew, especially in the winter.
“I’ve got it. I think Cheryl is pulling in now.” Jim pulled off his wool cap and headed to Gracie’s office. He used it to wipe ice particles from his face. Her brother trailed in behind Jim, brushing snow off his coat.
“I’ve gotta go, Gracie. I’ll see you later. Dan will probably show up today to talk to Terry.” Tom exited quickly. He needed to get to work at the Cooperative Extension in Warsaw, the county seat. Tom was the county agent when he wasn’t off fighting for his country. Tom’s gift to his family after his 12-month deployment in Afghanistan was processing his retirement papers. Gracie hoped Tom would settle down and find that elusive perfect woman. After an ugly divorce five years ago, he deserved a good woman. She was putting her money on Kelly Standish, the new vet. They had started dating a couple of months ago, and Gracie thought things looked promising.
Tom’s ex-wife Jan lived in Texas with their daughter Emma. It was hard to believe Emma was already 15. Jan had made it difficult for Tom or any of them to see Emma after the divorce. Sometimes Emma was allowed to come over Christmas vacation or during the summer. Gracie hoped she never ran into her ex-sister-in-law. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight for Jan if Gracie had her way. Jan had started seeing a coworker on one of Tom’s deployments and had decided she couldn’t handle her husband’s absences. After a nasty custody battle that Tom lost in spades, Jan and her new love had moved to Texas, taking Emma with them.
“Thanks for helping. I’ll let Terry know that Dan will stop by.”
Gracie saw Cheryl’s small Honda Civic pull into the freshly plowed parking area. She was a godsend after the debacle of student help last summer. A divorced mother of a teenage daughter, she loved dogs and had made herself indispensable within a week. She was also Milky Way’s creative force, always coming up with a marketing idea or a new service. Doggy Day Camp was on the schedule for summer. It was a combination of obedience training and socialization for puppies, three to nine months old. Gracie had a feeling it would be a hit like Cheryl’s homemade dog treats were last fall. They had sold buckets of them over Christmas.