Ali Reynolds leaned her head back against the pillow in the soaking tub and closed her eyes. With the help of the pummeling water jets, she let the rush of the past few days recede into the background. She and B. had made it. They were finally in Las Vegas. The rest of the wedding party was there, too. Back in November, when she and B. Simpson had first settled on a Christmas Eve wedding at the Four Seasons, it seemed entirely doable—a piece of cake. After all, how hard could it be?
Because Ali and B. had chosen to be married in a hotel, much of the planning was done by simply cruising through the wedding planning pages on the Four Seasons website. Arranging the time, date, flowers, type of ceremony—including their preferred verbiage in the vows—was just a matter of making a few mouse clicks on her computer. Ditto for the menus. One was for what they were calling the rehearsal dinner despite the fact that there would be no rehearsal until the morning of the wedding. She also used the website to choose separate menus for both the reception and the post-ceremony supper. Ali stepped away from her computer, thinking that she had most everything handled. Unfortunately, she had failed to take her mother’s reaction into consideration.
Preparations for Ali’s previous weddings had been well beyond Edie Larson’s geographic reach—Chicago for the first ceremony and Los Angeles for the second. Caught up in running the family business, the Sugarloaf Café in Sedona, Arizona, 363 days a year, all Ali’s parents had been able to do on the two previous occasions was arrive in time for the rehearsal dinners and depart immediately after the nuptials.
This time around, Ali wasn’t so lucky. Her parents, Bob and Edie Larson, were both retired now, having sold the restaurant. Bob had found plenty to do in retirement, but Edie, left with too much time on her hands, had hit the wedding planner ground at a dead run, a reaction for which Ali herself had been totally unprepared.
In the past, Ali had found the term “bridezilla” mildly amusing, but when it came to dealing with an Edie who had suddenly morphed into what could only be called the bride’s “momzilla”? That wasn’t amusing in the least. To Ali’s surprise, Edie had whipped out her long-unused Singer sewing machine and set about stitching up a storm. In keeping with the season, Edie’s mother-of-the-bride dress was a deep-green velvet and probably the most sophisticated attire Ali had ever seen in her mother’s wardrobe.
With her own dress safely in hand, Edie had gone on to tackle outfits for the twins, Ali’s grandchildren, Colleen and Colin, who would serve as flower girl and ring bearer respectively. Colleen’s dress was a ruby-red taffeta, and Colin’s tux, also homemade, came complete with a matching ruby-red taffeta cummerbund. Once that was finished, Edie took it upon herself to sew identical cummerbunds for all the men in the wedding party.
Ali’s father, Bob, was not an official member because Ali’s son, Chris, would do the honor of walking her down the aisle. Even so, Edie had gone so far as to bully her husband into actually buying a tux as opposed to renting one so Bob would have one to wear to formal dinner nights on their next cruise. Edie had been in despair about Ali’s ever finding a suitable wedding dress, and her sense of dread deepened when her daughter abruptly removed herself from the wedding planning equation. For the better part of two weeks in early December, Ali avoided all the frenetic pre-wedding activity by, as Edie put it, “larking off” to England.
That’s what Ali and B. had both expected her trip to Bournemouth would be—a lark. She went along for the ride when her longtime majordomo, Leland Brooks, returned home to the British Isles after living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the better part of sixty years. The trip was actually a thank-you from B. and Ali for Leland’s years of loyal service, including his having saved Ali’s life a month earlier in a nighttime desert confrontation with a kidnapper.
Ali had expected that her responsibilities would entail providing backup in case any of Leland’s long-lost relatives decided to go off the rails. She was also there as the designated driver, since most car rental agencies didn’t allow octogenarians to rent vehicles.
In a role-reversal variation on Driving Miss Daisy, Ali had taken the wheel of their “hired” Range Rover and driven Leland through the snowy English countryside from London to Bournemouth, Leland’s hometown, on the south coast of England. Together they even took a sentimental side trip to one of Leland’s favorite childhood haunts: Stonehenge.
In a small fashion boutique in Bournemouth, Leland had helped Ali find the perfect dress for her third and, as she put it, hopefully last wedding. Even now, her lovely lace-adorned ivory silk knee-length sheath was hanging in its original clear plastic wrap in the closet here at the Four Seasons. Needless to say, Edie was greatly relieved to know that the wedding dress issue had at last been handled even if she hadn’t been allowed to make it or choose it.
Still, the UK trip hadn’t been all been fun and games. As expected, some of Leland’s relatives proved to be problematic—especially his gossipy and troublesome cousins, Maisie and Daisy, who were more than happy to put their unwelcome noses where they didn’t belong, chirping away with a chorus of derogatory comments as they did so.
In the course of the visit, Ali and Leland had determined that his father’s death decades earlier, long considered a suicide, was in fact a murder. Joining forces with both a local homicide inspector and also with the woman in charge of a company specializing in using DNA to identify war crime victims, Ali managed to solve that unsolved crime. Her solution wouldn’t have stood up in a court of law, but it removed the troubling weight of responsibility for his father’s death from Leland’s shoulders. In the process Leland was also reunited with a dear friend from his youth, Thomas Blackfield.
Ali and Leland’s trip back from the UK had included an emergency detour to central Texas, where Ali and B. had come to the rescue of a brilliant young computer hacker named Lance Tucker, whose innovative skills had made him the target of any number of unsavory types, including more than one Mexican drug cartel. Now safely enrolled in college classes, Lance was one of the newest additions to B. Simpson’s cyber security company, High Noon Enterprises.
• • •
Rousing herself, Ali noticed that what had started out as very hot water in her soaking tub had cooled too much. Because she knew this one small bit of respite was all she’d have before diving into three days brimming with pre- and post-wedding festivities, Ali drained out some of the tepid water and added enough hot water to make it comfortable again.
Getting the wedding party to Vegas had been a lot like herding cats. Leland, B.’s best man, and his out-of-country guest, Thomas, drove up in Leland’s brand-new Ford F-150 pickup truck, hauling his equally new Airstream Land Yacht. The Airstream was a welcome replacement to the much older fifth-wheel trailer that had long served as Leland’s residence. They were staying at an RV resort a few miles away from the hotel. Once the wedding was over and before returning to Sedona, they planned on doing some sightseeing, including, weather permitting, a leisurely stop at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which Thomas was keen on seeing.
Ali’s matron of honor and best friend happened to be a nun—a Sister of Providence. Sister Anselm had insisted on driving up alone in her Mini Cooper in case she received a call out in her role as a roving patient advocate. She had nixed the idea of staying with the wedding party at the Four Seasons and had instead checked into a guest room at the Convent of Saint Mary, a mile or so off the Strip. Everyone else—Ali’s son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Athena; their two kids, Colleen and Colin; B. and Ali; and B.’s second in command at High Noon, Stuart Ramey, had flown up on board a chartered Citation X that had picked them up at the tiny airport on a mesa in the midst of Sedona.
They had arrived earlier in the afternoon, flying to an FBO, a fixed-base operator, at McCarran International Airport. The FBO’s hangar was clearly visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows in Ali and B.’s penthouse suite. After checking into the hotel and seeing their rooms, not all of the guests were happy campers. Colin and Colleen were devastated when they discovered that their room, although just down the hall from Grandma Ali’s spacious suite, had no fireplace.
“How’s Santa Claus ever going to find us?” Colleen had wailed tearfully. B. had put a stop to her temper tantrum by coming up with the brilliant idea that the twins could hang their Christmas stockings from the mantel in his and Grandma’s room on Christmas Eve and then come there the next morning to open them.
“So much for having a peaceful honeymoon,” Ali told him wryly once he had negotiated the peace treaty and the mollified kids had gone back down the hall.
“Don’t try to fool me,” B. told her with a grin. “You wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The kids’ problem had been easily solved. The same could not be said of Stuart Ramey’s. Ali had long suspected Stu of suffering from a high-functioning form of Asperger’s syndrome. Totally at ease in front of a computer terminal, he lived as a virtual hermit in the company’s headquarters building in Cottonwood, dining on take-out food that was delivered to his office, which looked more like a grubby room in a college dorm than it did a place of business.
Eventually Ali had learned that Stuart’s solitary lifestyle and the reason he seldom left the grounds were both due to the fact that he had neither a driver’s license nor a vehicle. His fully guided trip to Paris, scheduled to happen in mid-January, would be the man’s second-ever airplane flight. His first had been today on the Citation X, riding from Sedona to Vegas. Stuart had spent most of the flight sitting tight-lipped and silent, both hands gripping the armrests while his face turned several interesting shades of green.
Given all that, when B. had told Ali that Stuart would be attending the wedding, she was nothing short of astonished. She was even more so when B. mentioned that Stu had offered to play the organ for the ceremony as well as sing a self-accompanied solo version of the “Wedding Song.” Stuart Ramey could play the organ and sing? Who knew?
But that wasn’t all Ali hadn’t known about the man. In addition to his fear of flying, Stuart was absolutely petrified of elevators. The latter deficit was apparent at the Four Seasons check-in desk when Stuart, still shaken from the plane ride, was handed the key to his room on the thirty-eighth floor. Glancing at the room number on the envelope, Stuart balked and said if he had to get there by elevator, he wasn’t going.
The Four Seasons is located on the upper floors of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. A very patient hotel desk clerk had spent the next twenty minutes working out a peace agreement with her counterpart at the overbooked Mandalay Bay. Working together, they ultimately made it possible for Stuart to stay in a part of the building that was accessible by a series of escalators and only two flights of interior stairs.
And then there was Ali’s father. Bob and Edie Larson weren’t especially religious, but they had always taken the commandment “Love thy neighbor” very seriously. For as long as Ali could remember, the Sugarloaf Café had been closed for regular business on both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Rather than having paying customers in, they opened their doors to the needy, serving up a full-course Thanksgiving feast to any and all comers. The people who could afford to make a donation did, and the ones who couldn’t didn’t. And Edie had made sure that Sugarloaf tradition continued even under its new ownership.
Come Christmas, there was more of same. On Christmas Eve, while other people were focused on Santa Claus coming down chimneys, Bob Larson spent most of the night cooking up a movable feast of ham strata baked in disposable aluminum baking tins, along with trays of Edie’s sweet rolls. Early Christmas morning, the goodies would be packed into his aging Bronco and hauled to the makeshift campsite at the top of Schnebly Hill Road that was home to a ragtag group of destitute people, many of them veterans suffering from PTSD, who spent both winters and summers huddled around campfires in the trackless forest.
• • •
This year, due to the wedding, Bob would be out of town on Christmas Day. That meant that, for the first time ever, he would not be in charge of leading what he liked to call the “ham strata delegation,” and he was having a tough time letting go. Derek and Elena Hoffman, the Sugarloaf’s new proprietors, had assured Bob that they were more than happy to carry on his long-established traditions. Derek had even accompanied Bob to the campsite on Thanksgiving evening so Bob could show Derek how to find the place and introduce him to the erstwhile leader of the group.
Even so, Bob was still worried. He wasn’t threatening to skip the wedding exactly, but he was making noises about skipping the wedding supper and renting a car so he could drive back home to Sedona a day early, in time to make sure the Christmas morning expedition went off without a hitch. The prospect of his possibly making an early departure meant that Bob and Edie weren’t exactly on speaking terms when they took their room keys and headed for the elevator lobby.
As they disappeared into the corridor, Ali turned to B. “Whew,” she said in relief, resting her head on his shoulder for a moment. “It’s a good thing this is a small wedding. I don’t know how I’d survive a large one.”
Up in their room, B. announced that he had rented a car and was taking Colin and Colleen out for a last-minute shopping trip so their parents could be surprised with gifts from the kids on Christmas morning.
“Do you want me to go along?” Ali asked.
“Nope,” he said. “I have some last-minute shopping to do for you, too. You stay here and rest.”
Which was how Ali had ended up taking her ease in that immense soaking tub. The water had cooled down again. This time she stepped out of the tub and into the glassed-in shower, where she shampooed her hair and rinsed off the lingering soap bubbles from the soaking tub. By the time she finished drying her hair and putting on makeup, she started worrying about what was keeping B., because their dinner reservation was only half an hour away. She was just reaching for the phone to call him when she heard a key in the lock.
Ali was surprised when the first person to enter the room was a bellman carrying several loaded shopping bags. Colin and Colleen followed the bellman while B. brought up the rear. Ali could see that he was cradling something in his arms, but at first, with the others in the way, she couldn’t see what it was.
“Look what we found, Grandma,” Colin announced. “A puppy.”
“A what?” Ali asked in disbelief.
“A puppy,” Colleen agreed. “We were done shopping and were waiting for the valet to bring our car around when someone drove past, opened the door, pushed the dog out into the driveway, and took off.”
“I was the one who caught him,” Colin announced proudly. “If it hadn’t been for me, he would’ve run out into the street and got runned over.”
Ali strode over to the door to see for herself. B., who thus far had yet to say a word, was holding the dog with both arms. The animal in question was a reddish-brown long-haired miniature dachshund. The tiny dog was frightened and shivering.
“You brought a dog up here?” Ali asked, still not quite believing her own eyes.
Colleen put her hands on her hips. “Of course we did,” she said in a tone that indicated Ali’s question was barely worthy of a response. “We couldn’t just leave her in the car, could we? Are you and Grandma going to keep her, B.? And what are you going to call her?”
“What we’re going to call is the pound,” Ali said firmly. “We can’t deal with a stray dog and a wedding, too.”
“You can’t send her to the pound,” Colleen objected. “Do you know what happens to dogs that end up in places like that? It’s awful. A lot of them get put to sleep.”
The bellman, having deposited the bags, returned to the entryway, where he stood looking back and forth between Ali and B. and waiting for his tip. Without a word, B. handed the shivering waif over to Ali and pulled a money clip out of his pocket.
“Our dinner reservation is in just a few minutes,” he said to the bellman. “You’re sure the dog sitter will be here by then?”
“You’ve hired a dog sitter?” Ali asked. She hardly believed her ears as each succeeding revelation topped the previous one.
“I was afraid she might start barking when we left her alone in the room to go to dinner,” B. said quickly.
The bellman nodded and pocketed his tip. “Thank you, sir. The sitter’s on her way here from Henderson right now. If she’s gets caught in traffic and ends up being late, don’t worry: One of us will come up stay with your little doggy until the sitter arrives. We told her about what happened and how you found her. She said she’ll stop at a pet store and pick up a collar and a leash on her way, and someone from downstairs should be up with your dog package in just a few minutes.”
“A dog package?” Ali repeated.
“If you want me to, I can ask the kitchen to send up a burger patty, fried with no salt. Salt’s bad for dogs, you know.”
“Sure,” B. said, looking at Ali as he answered but nodding to the bellman. “A ground round patty would be great.”
The bellman left with all of them still standing crammed in the entryway.
“Okay, kids,” B. said, herding the children out into the corridor, “we’ll leave all the presents here for the time being so your parents can open them on Christmas morning. Right now, though, we’ll leave Grandma to look after the dog while I take you back to your room. You need to get ready for dinner.” To Ali, in a voice that pleaded for forgiveness, he added, “I’ll be right back.”
Dumbfounded, Ali stood there holding the dog as the door slammed shut behind them. Unaware of Ali’s dismay over her arrival, the little animal heaved an exhausted sigh, snuggled into the crook of Ali’s arm, and closed her eyes. Colin had said the dog was a puppy. True, she was no bigger than a puppy—not more than seven or eight pounds—but she was most certainly not a baby. The dog was old enough to have a sprinkling of white hair on her muzzle.
The doorbell rang, startling both Ali and the dog, who jerked briefly and then returned to her slumber.
“Bellman,” a male voice announced from outside in the corridor. “Dog package.”
When Ali opened the door, a different bellman stood there holding the promised goods, which included a bed that was three times too big for the tiny dog, two equally huge dog dishes—one for water and one for food—and a cellophane-wrapped bag of dog treats. Those at least appeared to be small enough for a very small dog to tackle.
“Heard what happened,” the bellman said as he proceeded to arrange the items in the room. He placed the dog bed near the window, then unrolled a plastic mat and put it next to the bed. He set down the food dish at once but held on to the water dish long enough to fill it with a bottle of water he pulled out of his pocket. Once full, the water dish was placed on the mat as well.
“Had no idea how small she was,” the bellman observed once he was finished. “Would you like me to go downstairs and see if I can find smaller dishes?”
“No,” Ali said. “These will be fine.” Still holding the dog, Ali pointed at her purse. “If you’d just hand me that . . .”
“No, ma’am,” the bellman said. “You don’t need to worry about no tip. It ain’t just everybody who’ll go out of their way to rescue a poor little mite like that. If there’s anything else you need, you be sure to give us a call.”
After the bellman had left, Ali carried the slumbering dog over to the love seat by the window. The animal was so tiny, it felt like holding a baby. When Ali ran a hand down the dog’s side, she noticed that her ribs protruded in a way that indicated she might not have had enough to eat for a very long time.
Sitting there with the dog in her lap, Ali realized that this wasn’t something she had done often. Growing up, she hadn’t had pets. Her parents had maintained that running a restaurant and having pets didn’t mix. That didn’t mean she’d never had a pet, however. A few years earlier she had been drafted as the temporary caretaker of an aging cat, Samantha, after her good friend Reenie Bernard was murdered. Reenie’s children had adored the ugly, one-eyed cat dearly and had wanted to take Sam with them. Unfortunately the kids’ new living arrangement with Reenie’s parents as their court-appointed guardians precluded that. Their grandfather was allergic to the creature. As a result, Ali’s supposedly temporary fostering arrangement morphed into being permanent.
Despite initial misgivings on Ali’s part and reservations on Samantha’s part, too, the two of them finally sorted out their differences. The cat was won over to her new household as much by Leland Brooks’s patient kindness as by Ali’s. But a dog? A dog was a different story entirely, and Ali didn’t think she wanted to go there.
A key card slid into the lock. The door opened and B. entered. “I know what you’re going to say,” he said sheepishly.
“A dog?” she replied. “On our honeymoon? Are you serious?”
“See?” he said. “Just as I expected.”
“But, B.,” she argued, “this isn’t our dog. She belongs to someone. We’ve got to find her owner.”
“She’s got no collar and no tag, and she’s not going back to the asshole who threw her out of the car,” B. declared with a trace of anger in his voice that Ali had never heard before. “You should have seen what happened. If Colin hadn’t been quick on his feet, that dog would have been out in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard and run over in two seconds flat.”
Ali shook her head. She could imagine what Athena would say when she heard that her son had been darting through traffic in an effort to rescue an abandoned animal. B. had never had children of his own. His dealings with Colin and Colleen were his first efforts at either parenting—or grandparenting, for that matter. Ali knew that Athena was inordinately strict when it came to enforcing what she called “parking lot rules,” which meant that the children had to be holding hands with an adult at all times. B.’s version of parking lot rules were abysmal.
“What do you propose to do with her?” Ali asked, looking down at the sleeping dog, who had yet to move a muscle.
B. grinned. “First off, we’re going to go to the non-rehearsal rehearsal dinner. The concierge tells me that there’s an all-night veterinary clinic a few miles from here on Sahara. When we go out later to get the marriage license, we’ll stop by the clinic on the way and have her wanded. If she has a chip, we’ll have her back home with her real owner—most likely not the same asshole who threw her out of his car—sometime later tonight. No fuss, no muss.”
Ali said nothing as B. disappeared into the bathroom to shower and change. Moments later the doorbell rang again. “Room service,” someone called.
When Ali opened the door, a uniformed waiter stood outside, resting a meal tray on his shoulder. “May I come in?”
Still holding the dog, Ali stepped aside. “Certainly.”
The waiter deposited the tray on the desk. On it was a single plate covered by a stainless-steel cloche, the kind of thing servers usually whip off plates in fine dining establishments. “Would you like me to serve this?” he asked, handing her a pen and then holding the bill folder open so she could sign the check without having to relinquish the dog. She scribbled her signature and room number and added a generous tip.
“No, thank you,” she said. “We’ll manage.”
B. came out of the combination bathroom and dressing room, showered, shaved, and dressed for dinner, complete with a suit and tie.
“What was that?”
“The dog’s dinner arrived,” Ali said. “I guess it’s up to you to serve it.”
When B. uncovered the meat patty, he found that it had been grilled perfectly, medium rare. Like the bed and the dishes, the patty appeared to be much too big for such a tiny dog. Wielding a knife and fork, B. cut the meat into minute pieces. Rather than putting the small portion of food into the immense food bowl, B. went into the bathroom and returned with a small stainless-steel soap dish.
“This is a little closer to her size,” he said.
After B. placed the makeshift dog dish on the mat, Ali carefully put the dog down in front of the food. She sniffed at the meat with arch disdain. Then, turning up her nose and without eating even a morsel, she stepped over to the water dish and lapped up a little.
“Whatever she’s used to eating,” Ali surmised, “this obviously isn’t it.”
The dog went over to the dog bed and gave it a sniff or two as well. Then, turning her back on that, she walked over to the king-size bed. The mattress was high enough from the floor that it should have been completely beyond her reach, but it wasn’t. From a four-footed standing start she leaped up onto the bed with a practiced grace. Once there, she made her way to the head of the bed, where she immediately burrowed under the pillows and disappeared from sight.
Ali and B. stared at the spot where the dog had vanished, then looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Evidently dog beds aren’t her thing, either,” Ali observed when the giggles finally subsided. “If she stays overnight, it may turn out that you and the dog get the foldout bed and I get the real one.”
B. nodded. “I suppose that’s only fair.”
The doorbell rang again. Ali felt as though it hadn’t stopped ringing since she stepped out of the tub. When she opened the door, a slender, silver-haired, seventysomething woman stood in the hallway, holding a PetSmart bag along with a purse that was large enough to hold the dog. “I’m Mrs. Hastings,” she announced. “The pet sitter.”
By then it was time for B. and Ali to head downstairs. Like parents dealing with a new babysitter, they showed Mrs. Hastings where the dog had disappeared and then quickly brought her up to date on as much as they knew about the animal.
“What do you call her?” Mrs. Hastings asked.
“We don’t call her anything, because we don’t know her name,” Ali said. “We’re still trying to find her owner.”
“That’s probably wise,” Mrs. Hastings replied. “Once you name them, they’re as good as yours.”
Ali didn’t want to think about that. “Sorry,” she said. “We’ve got to run.”
Their dinner reservation was in the steakhouse. The table had originally been set for twelve, but the number was reduced to eleven when Stuart Ramey called down to say he wasn’t feeling up to joining them in the dining room.
“What if he bails on the ceremony tomorrow?” Ali asked B. under her breath. “We’ll end up stuck with a ceremony and no music.”
“Stu will be there,” B. assured her. “Don’t worry.”
For a wedding rehearsal dinner, this was a very subdued affair. The required speeches by both the best man and matron of honor were brief and to the point. B. proposed a toast to his parents, both deceased, saying that he wished they had lived long enough to have a chance to meet Ali. Bob Larson spoke about welcoming a new son to the family, and Colin stood up with his Shirley Temple in hand and said he was really happy to have a new grandpa.
The rest of the time, however, the main topic of conversation was the dog. If Athena had been upset about her son’s having dashed into traffic to save the dog, she seemed to have recovered.
“My grandmother has a little dachshund like that,” she said. “Her name is Princess. She’s probably about the same color, reddish-brown, and she’s spoiled rotten.”
“Maybe they’re sisters?” Colin suggested.
“I doubt that,” his mother told him.
“What if B. can’t find her real owner, not that awful man who threw her out?” Colleen asked. She was still worried that the dog would end up in the pound. “Can we keep her?”
“No,” Athena said, shaking her head. “That’s not gonna happen. We’d need a fenced yard.”
“We could build one,” Colin suggested.
Athena looked at him and shook her head again. “That won’t happen, either.”
Colleen then turned her plaintive gaze on her great-grandparents. Bob Larson was the one who answered. “No can do, pumpkin,” he said. “Grandma and I take too many cruises.”
Colleen wasn’t about to give up. She turned to Ali next. “You have a fenced yard,” she said triumphantly, as though the fence alone meant the matter was settled.
“The problem with that is Grandma doesn’t want a dog,” Ali replied. “And I most especially don’t want a dog on my honeymoon.”
“What’s a honeymoon?” Colin asked.
Thinking that discussing the dog might have been a better bet, Ali let B. take a stab at answering. “It’s something that happens after weddings,” B. explained. “It’s when the bride and groom go off and spend some time by themselves without anyone else along.”
“But the dog could go, too,” Colleen insisted. “She wouldn’t be any bother, would she? Uncle Leland could watch her.”
Knowing they had at least two pressing errands to run after dinner, Ali and B. went light on the champagne toasts and passed on having wine. Because Colin and Colleen would be in attendance and maybe running out of steam, Ali had booked the earliest possible dinner reservation.
It was only a little past eight thirty when B. and Ali went back upstairs to their room and discovered that a plastic sign with the words PET IN ROOM had been hung on the door handle along with one that said DO NOT DISTURB. Inside they found Mrs. Hastings seated on the couch with the dog in her lap, sleeping again. The animal looked up groggily when they entered. Then, exhibiting a distinct lack of interest, she immediately resumed her former position.
“Poor little thing,” Mrs. Hastings said, patting her on the head. “She’s completely worn out. She’s barely moved a muscle.”
“So how was it?” B. asked, sounding very much like an anxious parent grilling a babysitter.
“Well, I’ve succeeded in breaking the code on a few things about her,” Mrs. Hastings answered. “She’s definitely spoiled and much prefers being hand-fed to eating out of a dish. Once I figured that out, she ate her helping of hamburger like it was going out of style. I tried her on some of the kibble, but she turned up her nose at that, most likely because of her teeth.”
“What about her teeth?”
“Didn’t you notice how bad her breath is? Her teeth and gums are in terrible shape. She’ll probably need to have some of them pulled. By the way,” Mrs. Hastings added, “I’m quite sure she’s lived in a multistory building.”
“Really?” B. asked. “How did you figure that out?”
“After she ate, I took her for a walk,” the sitter said. “She knows all about riding in elevators. The first time dogs get on elevators and start going up or down, they pretty much go nuts. Not so this one. She understood perfectly. She’s also very well behaved, by the way, and knows all about walking on a leash.
“When we got to the elevator lobby, she sat down and waited like she already knew that doors would slide open and we’d step inside. On the way up and down, she just sat there, pretty as you please, waiting for the doors to open again. And once we got outside and hit the grass in the dog walking area, there was no fooling around. She did her business right away. By the way, there are more poop bags in the PetSmart bag.”
“So she knows how to walk on a leash and is house-trained,” Ali said. “But I’m not doing dog-walking duty. I’m here as the bride, not the resident dog walker.”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Hastings interjected. “Someone mentioned that you’re getting married tomorrow. That’ll make for a busy day. What are your plans for the dog?”
“Our plan for the dog is to go to a vet tonight, find out if she’s been chipped, and, if so, return her to her owner,” Ali said.
Mrs. Hastings reached into her pocket and pulled out a business card, which she handed over to B. “Well, if that doesn’t work out, feel free to call me directly. You’ll get a better rate if you take me for the whole day rather than hourly.”
B. slipped the card into his pocket, then reached for his money clip. Mrs. Hastings waved it aside. “I’m a regular here,” she said. “My charges are simply added to your bill. All right, then. I’ll be going. I left the leash over there on the table by the door. Good luck with that vet. I hope you find her owner.”
Before venturing back out, both B. and Ali changed into more casual attire. The dog made no objection when B. attached the leash to her tiny red collar. Once he put her down on the floor, she stretched and gave a long, nose-to-tail shake. On their way out the door, B. offered the lead to Ali. She shook her head.
“Nope,” she said. “This is your deal, not mine.”
After boarding the elevator, they rode down and made their way through the long corridor that led to the lobby, all without incident. The dog trotted obediently beside B. as though that had always been her rightful place. It was only when the doorman opened the lobby door to let them out into the driveway that things went wrong. Several people were gathered on the curb outside, waiting for their respective vehicles to emerge from the garage. One of them, a portly gentleman in a double-breasted suit, was smoking a cigar with one hand and leaning on a cane with the other. As B. began to lead the dog past him, the dog emitted a surprisingly serious growl deep in her throat and then lunged for the guy’s ankles.
B. was able to haul her back before any damage was done, but the man was clearly offended. “Hey, that’s a vicious little dog you’ve got there,” he shouted after B. and Ali as they walked swiftly toward B.’s rented Caddy. “You ought to keep a muzzle on that ratty little monster.”
Opening the back passenger door, B. shoved the dog inside and shut the door behind her. By the time Ali opened her door and climbed in, the dog had jumped up on the center console. Then, before Ali could fasten her seat belt, the dog darted into her lap, shivering again as though the very idea of being in a vehicle was enough to petrify her.
“She’s shaking again,” Ali reported to B. when he climbed into the driver’s seat.
“I don’t blame her,” he said. “We already know that at least one car ride she took today didn’t end very well.”
Holding the tiny trembling dog and trying to comfort her, Ali saw the scene at the Palazzo’s valet stand from a new perspective. The little animal, suddenly thrust out alone in a huge world complete with looming buildings and rushing cars, must have been utterly terrified. Much as Ali didn’t want to spend her wedding weekend dealing with a stray-dog problem, she couldn’t help but be proud of Colin, who had somehow, against all odds, managed to corral the petrified creature and save her from certain death.
Once B. had keyed the veterinary clinic’s address into the GPS, they set off. Ali discovered that nighttime traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard was nothing short of astonishing. They inched along in gridlock fashion until they were able to turn off on Sahara. When they located the clinic, it turned out to be a modest one-story stand-alone building with a parking lot full of vehicles. The ride there had taken more than twenty minutes, but the dog was still shivering.
“Since we don’t know how she’ll react in a roomful of animals, I’d probably better carry her inside,” B. said, and Ali was happy to hand her over.
Walking into the vet’s reception area reminded Ali of stepping into the ER waiting room of any hospital on the planet. A dozen concerned people were seated on chairs scattered around the room, accompanied by their ailing or injured pets. Spotting a huge German shepherd wearing a pinch collar around his neck and a bloody towel wrapped around one paw, Ali decided B.’s idea of holding their charge was 100 percent correct.
On their way to the counter, Ali counted seven dogs in all: a sheltie, an aging, white-nosed golden retriever, a bug-eyed pug, two docile pit bulls, and two Chihuahuas. Both of the Chihuahuas were decked out in sparkly Christmas-themed rhinestone vests. In addition, there were two carriers with cats in them added to the mix. The humans in the room looked worried and concerned. The animals, barely acknowledging anyone else’s presence, merely waited.
“Can I help you?” a young woman in a blue flowered uniform asked. “What ails your baby this evening?”
“She’s not really ours,” B. explained. “We found her abandoned earlier today, and we’re wondering if she has a chip. If we need to make an appointment . . .”
“No appointment needed for that,” the receptionist replied briskly. “I’ve got my wand right here. It only takes a minute.”
She was right. After bringing an electronic device out from under the counter and with B. still cradling the dog in his arms, she ran the wand over the dog’s shoulder.
“Yup, she’s chipped all right,” the clerk announced. “An LPID chip. L-P-I-D—stands for Lost Pet ID,” she added, spelling it out. “You can get their information off their website on the Internet. When you contact them, either by phone or e-mail, give them this number.” She passed B. a slip of paper on which she had written the information.
“The poor little thing looks pretty thin,” she added. “Do you want me to weigh her?”
“Please,” B. replied.
When the clerk returned the dog to them, she was frowning. “A miniature dachshund like this should weigh right around ten pounds. This one clocks in at only seven—that’s a third under her ideal body weight. And her teeth are a mess. If you want me to, I can take her back and keep her here with us while the people from LPID try to locate her owner.”
“What happens if the owner can’t be found?” B. asked.
The receptionist shrugged. “At that point we’ll contact Animal Control and turn her over to them.”
B. took a deep breath and looked at Ali. This was the moment of decision. The clerk had given them a clean shot at simply walking away from the situation and getting back to concentrating on their wedding.
“It’s up to you,” he said.
Ali took a moment before making up her mind for both of them. “No, thank you,” she said. “We’ll look after her until the owner is found.”
“Good,” B. said.
In the roomful of people, it may have sounded like he was speaking to the clerk. Ali knew he was really speaking to her.
“What do we owe you?” he asked.
“Not a thing,” the clerk said. “We never charge for helping return lost pets to their owners. It’s a public service.”
Back in the car, with Ali holding the once again shivering dog, B. turned to her and said, “What now?”
“Let’s get this over with and do what we can to find her owner tonight,” Ali said. “Assuming the chip connection works, we can drop her off either before or after we go to the courthouse for our marriage license.”
By then, iPhone in hand, Ali was already searching Safari for LPID. Once she found the website and the phone number, she handed the phone to B. Then she reached down and held the trembling dog close to her breast. “It’s going to be okay,” Ali murmured comfortingly. “We’re going to find your owner now. Just you wait and see.”
Once B. had dialed the number, they sat in the clinic’s parking lot for the next several minutes while he waited on hold. Finally when an operator picked up, he launched off on an explanation of the situation. When he finished, he was again placed on hold. For several more minutes they waited while an annoying version of elevator music hummed through the phone’s speaker. At last the operator returned to the line.
“Sorry,” she said. “I can tell you that the dog’s name is Bella. I called the number we have listed in our records. Unfortunately, it came up as a disconnect with no referral to a new number. There was an e-mail address listed as well. I tried that, too, but the message bounced.”
“Could you give me that phone number?” B. asked.
“No,” the operator said. “Sorry. Privacy concerns and all that. We’re not allowed to give out that information to third parties. As for the dog? You should probably drop Bella off with Animal Control. If you’ll give me your current location, I can find the address for you.”
B. looked at Ali.
“Bella?” Ali asked. The dog immediately sat up straight, ears on the alert, and looked Ali directly in the eye. She knew her name. No doubt about it.
Ali sighed in resignation. “All right,” she said in answer to B.’s unasked question. “We’re sure as hell not taking her to the pound. Colleen would have our ears.”
B. nodded in agreement. “And we’re doing this?” he asked.
Ali knew at once that they were no longer discussing what should be done with the dog.
“Yup, we are,” she said. “Next up, it’s time to get the marriage license. The rehearsal isn’t scheduled to happen until eleven. Maybe we’ll have time to do something more about the Bella situation in the morning. In the meantime, you’d better dig Mrs. Hastings’s card out of your pocket, give her a call, and see if she’ll give us a daily rate for tomorrow.”
The Clark County courthouse was in a disturbingly seedy neighborhood—bad enough that they both worried about leaving the dog alone in the car, but with a sign on the entrance announcing NO DOGS ALLOWED, they didn’t have much choice. Inside, they spent the better part of forty-five minutes filling out paperwork and standing in a long line of mostly giddy couples intent on their Christmas weddings. Finally it was their turn at the bulletproof window, where the clerk found B.’s quip about shotgun weddings not especially funny. With their marriage license safely stowed in Ali’s purse, they returned to the hotel, where the valet who opened Ali’s door nodded in Bella’s direction as she exited the car.
“Any luck?” he asked. Evidently all the guys at the valet stand were aware of the situation.
“Not so far,” Ali answered. “We’ve established that the dog’s name is Bella but that’s about all. We have yet to locate her owner.”
“Too bad,” he said.
With Bella once again on her leash, they started into the lobby. “Wait,” Ali said. “Before we go upstairs, maybe we should walk her again.”
A bellman directed them to a grassy area on the far side of the hotel’s front drive that turned out to be the pet walking area. Ali was relieved to see that it was fully stocked with poop bags and poop bag garbage containers. She was also relieved to see that Bella lived up to Mrs. Hastings’s advance billing. She did her duty at once and was ready to go inside.
Upstairs, Ali led Bella into the room and then knelt down to remove the leash. As soon as she did, the dog gave herself a thorough shake, then scampered over to the mat with the bowls. She sniffed at the empty food bowl and took a few more dainty laps of water. Her next move was to hop back up on the bed and burrow under the pillows.
Ali couldn’t help laughing at this second disappearing act. “I guess this is how it’s going to be, isn’t it?”
B. nodded. “For tonight, anyway,” he agreed. “But as you said, we’ll take another crack at this in the morning.” He already had his phone out of his pocket.
“Who are you calling?”
“Stuart,” he told her. And then, into the phone, he said. “Hey, Stu. How are you doing? I hope you’re feeling better than you were earlier.” There was a pause, then he added, “Great. Do you happen to have your computer handy?”
Ali thought that to be a stupid question. It seemed unlikely that Stuart Ramey would go anywhere without having a computer keyboard readily available.
“Ali and I have a little problem here,” B. said. “I was hoping maybe you could help us with it.”
Because Stuart had missed dinner, he had to be brought up to speed on the Bella saga from the very beginning. “So that’s what’s needed,” B. finished. “I’d like you to see if you can get inside LPID’s server. Even if the phone number of the dog’s owner is a disconnect, we should be able to get a physical address. That would give us a place to start.”
While B. was on the phone, Ali slipped into her nightgown and robe.
“Well?” she asked when he ended the call.
“He’ll be back in touch.”
Good to his word, Stu called back less than fifteen minutes later, and B. put the phone on speaker.
“Okay,” Stuart said. “The phone number leads back to a woman named Harriet Reid in unit number 3-407 at a condo complex on Harmon. It’s just off the Strip, near the MGM Grand. According to Zillow, at least twenty-five of the units in that complex are currently in foreclosure, including the one listed as belonging to Ms. Reid. While I was at it, I did a quick check of public records. I don’t see any death listings for someone named Harriet Reid. That doesn’t mean she isn’t dead. It just means she didn’t die in Clark County.”
“Thanks for the help, Stu,” B. said. “We’ll look into this in the morning. In the meantime, you might want to check with the security folks over at the Palazzo and see if their cameras picked up any information on an unidentified vehicle that came through their parking lot this afternoon at about four forty-five. It was a dark SUV of some kind, but I didn’t get a good look at it; I was too worried about Colin and the dog.”
When it was time to go to bed, B. moved the dog bed so it was next to theirs and tried relocating Bella. It didn’t work; not the first time, or the second or third times, either. On each occasion, she immediately hopped back up onto the bed. On the fourth try, Bella didn’t hop up immediately. Instead, she waited until B. switched off his bedside lamp. That was her signal. Seconds later she landed on the bed again, first making a beeline for the head of the bed and then burrowing under the covers. Once there, she immediately settled down. With a contented sigh she stretched out with her surprisingly long back pressed up against Ali’s back.
“Wait a minute,” B. complained from his side of the bed. “You’ve got the good part of the dog. All I’ve got are four sharp little feet poking me in the side.”
“Too bad,” Ali told him over her shoulder with a singular lack of sympathy. “Wasn’t all this your idea?”
When Ali opened her eyes at seven o’clock the next morning, Bella was still there, snuggled under the covers. Despite Ali’s earlier protests about not being the designated dog walker, she hurried out of bed, careful to not awake B., threw on her previous night’s clothing, leashed up the dog, and headed downstairs. When she and Bella returned to the lobby after their successful walk, Ali was surprised to find B. not only up, he was also dressed, downstairs, and waiting for them in the lobby with two paper cups of coffee in hand.
“Chris, Athena, and the kids came by a minute ago,” he informed her, handing her one of the cups. “They’re on their way to the breakfast buffet. I told them we had an errand to run. Want to go and try tracking down Harriet Reid?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
When they turned off the Strip onto Harmon, Bella suddenly sat up on her haunches in Ali’s lap, positioning herself like a tiny meerkat, staring eagerly out the windshield, with her nose going a mile a minute.
“Looks like we’re on the right track,” B. observed.
When they located the condo complex, the Palms on Harmon, they found a set of buildings that might have presented an impressive appearance when first built, but that was no longer true. The signature palm trees out front were all dead. So was the grass. Flower beds that had most likely once been planted full of petunias were thick with weeds and grass.
As dismal as the place looked, a glance at Bella told them they were in the right place. They were still cruising the parking lot, but the dog was already scratching at the window in her eagerness to get out.
“Bella seems to like it,” B. muttered, “but this could just as well be a ghost town. The only thing missing is a few tumbling tumbleweeds.”
B. finally located a spot with the word VISITOR printed in faded white paint. After parking, B. got out, and started toward what was billed as the main entrance. When Ali stepped out of the car with Bella, however, the dog clearly had something else in mind. She set off in a different direction, determinedly dragging Ali along with her.
“This way,” Ali called. “Apparently Bella knows where she’s going.”
The complex was divided into four separate buildings. Bella walked up to the glass door of building number three and stood there expectantly, waiting for someone to open it. B. picked up the old-fashioned security phone and held it to his ear while studying the names listed on the directory. Harriet Reid was still listed as a resident, but he didn’t bother pressing the button beside her name. Instead, he located a button marked MANAGER and pressed that one. No one answered there, either.
“He’s not here,” a woman’s voice said behind them. “He’s supposed to be here by eight, but he generally doesn’t make it before eight thirty or nine. But with the wages they’re paying building managers these days, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t get good help.”
B. and Ali both turned to glance at the new arrival—an elderly woman who shuffled toward them on a pair of worn house slippers. A cloud of cigarette smoke accompanied her approach. Ali, accustomed to Sedona’s high-desert winter temperatures, thought this late-December day in Vegas to be reasonably balmy. The woman, obviously a local, was bundled up in a winter coat buttoned over what was evidently a bathrobe. Wrapped around her neck was a long homemade knitted scarf in an ungodly chartreuse that clashed with the brown wool of the coat.
To B.’s and Ali’s amazement, the dog immediately darted forward to greet the newcomer, standing on her haunches, whining, and pawing eagerly at the woman’s bare knee.
“Why, little Bella Mia!” the woman exclaimed in delight. At once she knelt down to embrace the ecstatic dog, who eagerly kissed the woman’s nose and ears and left a scrim of wet noseprints on her glasses. “What in the world are you doing here, little one?”
“Someone dumped her in the parking lot at the Palazzo late yesterday afternoon,” B. explained. “We’re trying to find her owner.”
“Somebody dumped her? Poor baby. Probably Harriet’s worthless son. Can’t remember his name right now—Garvin or Marvin or something like that. Never did like the man. He always gave me the heebie-jeebies.
“I’m Merle, by the way,” she added. Rising to her feet, she stepped up to the door and punched a code into the security pad. Immediately the door clicked open. “Merle Goodwin,” she added over her shoulder. “Why don’t you come on inside?”
Bella didn’t wait for Merle to finish the invitation. She streaked inside, pulling Ali along with her.
“It’s way too cold to stand out there jawing,” Merle continued. “And I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a can of those Vienna sausages up in my unit. Bella just loves them to death, don’t you, girl?”
Once inside the lobby, Bella made straight for the elevator while the three humans walked behind her.
“Harriet always swore by that little tyke,” Merle added. “Just loved her to bits.”
They rode to the fourth floor in silence. When the elevator door opened, Bella darted off to the right while Merle turned to the left. It took considerable tugging on Ali’s part to convince the dog to go in the other direction.
“Sorry, girl,” Merle said. “Harriet’s not there anymore.”
“Where is she?”
“Damned if I know,” Merle said, unlocking the door to her unit. “Last I saw, they were hauling the old gal off in an ambulance. Left the poor dog there all by herself. I heard her barking and barking. I finally raised enough hell with the manager that he let me in so I could take care of her and see to it that she got fed, watered, and walked. It was the least I could do. That went on for a couple of weeks. Then one day her son came by while I was out shopping. He took the dog away with him without so much as a word of thanks, either.”
Taking off her coat and hanging it up, Merle looked down self-consciously at her faded bathrobe. “We’re not supposed to smoke inside the building,” she explained. “Even if there’s nobody around who cares about the rules anymore, I still do my best to follow them. Now, what can I get you? Some coffee, maybe?”
“Coming right up. You all have a seat,” Merle said, then wagged a finger at Bella. “Don’t worry. I won’t forget you.”
As soon as Ali and B. took seats on the worn cloth couch, Bella hopped up and positioned herself between them. The only other chair in the room was a well-used recliner, which was evidently Merle’s preferred spot.
The combination living room and dining room was shabby but neat. An outdated oak pedestal table marked the dining space. The long interior wall was lined with a series of tall, cheap bookshelves that bulged with paperbacks stacked two deep on every shelf. A bulky television set, several generations earlier than the current crop of flat-screen models, sat on top of an oak buffet that most likely had started out as part of a dining room set.
Merle came back into the room, carrying a pair of matching china cups and saucers. Ali recognized the delicate flowered pattern as an antique one, long out of use. The gilt edging around the tops of the cups and the edges of the saucers was chipped and cracked.
“Cream or sugar?” she asked.
“No, just black, thank you,” Ali told her.
Merle glanced at the dog, who was watching the woman’s every move with avid interest. “Don’t you worry, little one. I know just what you want.”
She disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned, she was carrying a coffee mug in one hand and a saucer in the other. The saucer, which matched the others, was full of tiny pieces of sausage. She passed the meat-laden saucer to Ali. “I’ve cut them up in little bitty pieces, just the way she likes them.”
As soon as Ali offered the saucer to Bella, the dog dove right in, stopping between bites long enough to wag her tail and glance back and forth between Merle and Ali. It looked for all the world as though she were expressing her thanks, and it was easy to see that when Vienna sausages were on the menu, hand-feeding was no longer necessary.
“What exactly happened to Harriet?” Ali asked. Bella was still eating, but Merle had settled into her recliner.
“Well, like I said, the ambulance came and carted her off to the hospital—Sunrise,” she added. “You know where that is?”
“No,” B. said. “But I’m sure we can find it.”
“Don’t bother. She’s not there. This all happened six months or so ago. I tried calling her, but the nurse I talked to said she couldn’t speak. Something that happened to her because of her stroke.”
“She suffered from aphasia?” Ali asked.
Merle nodded emphatically. “Right. That’s it. I told the nurse to tell her I called and that, as far as I knew, Bella was okay. I knew she’d want to know that. I called several more times after that, just to check on her, but then one day when I called, the nurse told me she wasn’t there anymore. Said she’d been released. She may have been released, but she never came back here.”
“What happened to her apartment?” B. asked.
Merle shrugged. “Her son sent some movers in to empty it out. I heard he raised hell with the manager—a previous manager, not the one we have now—because before I could get in to take care of her, Bella had peed and crapped on the carpet in the bedroom and scratched hell out of the front door. What did that jackass expect her to do, hold it until he got his lazy ass around to coming to get her? I knew she had done her business—I could smell it, for Pete’s sake—but the mess was hidden under the bed. I was already feeding and walking the poor little thing. I didn’t figure it was my job to move the furniture to clean up after her.”
“Did Harriet leave a forwarding address?”
“She did, but it’s run out now. I tried sending her a Christmas card a couple of weeks ago. I mailed it to her address here, thinking the post office would send it along, but it came back marked as undeliverable. Here, I’ll show you.”
Merle rose and went over to the buffet, where she pawed through a glass dish brimming with envelopes. Finding the one she wanted, she brought it back and showed it to B., who pulled out a pen and made a quick note on the same piece of paper that already held the information about Bella’s chip number. When he passed the envelope to Ali, she saw that the expired forwarding address on the yellow RETURN TO SENDER sticker listed a post office box somewhere in Summerlin, Nevada.
“So, anyway,” Merle continued, “for a while Harriet’s place was listed for sale, but then the listing ran out. I think her son must have stopped paying the mortgage.”
B. nodded. “It’s in foreclosure now.”
Merle bit her lip and said nothing.
“Tell us about Harriet’s son,” Ali suggested. “Does he by any chance smoke cigars?”
“How on earth would you know that?” Merle demanded. “But yes, the man smoked like a fiend. He always had one of those thick old stogies stuck in his mouth. You know the kind I mean. They look like fence posts and smell worse. He didn’t bother going outside to smoke them, either. That’s one of the things I didn’t like about him. He’s a guy who doesn’t believe rules apply to him.”
“Are you sure you don’t remember his name?”
“Why would I bother? He’s a worthless piece of crap. Besides, he was mean to Bella.”
“He kicked her once when Harriet was out in the kitchen. I saw him do it. Made her yelp.”
“Did Harriet know about that?”
“I don’t know,” Merle said. Then, after a pause, she added, “Probably. You know how mothers are. They make excuses for their kids or else just refuse to see what everybody else can see as plain as the nose on their face.”
“You obviously care for Bella,” Ali observed. “I can see that she likes you, too. Why didn’t you take her?”
It seemed like a reasonable enough question, but when Merle’s eyes filled with tears, Ali was sorry she’d asked.
“I couldn’t afford it,” Merle admitted. “Long-term, I mean. I’ve got enough money to get by, as long as I’m careful about it. And I could certainly pay for her day-to-day upkeep. But she’s already eight, you know. That’s getting up there, even for a little dog. When I lost Wendy, my corgi, I did every single thing the vet said I should do—and then she died anyway. Cost me five thousand bucks. It took three years to pay off the vet bill alone—about as long as it used to take to pay off a car. I know myself too well, you see. If I took Bella in, when push came to shove, I would do it all over again for her: take her straight to the vet, and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Finished with her treat, Bella was once again stretched out full-length between B. and Ali, lying like a little sphinx with her sides touching both their thighs and listening to the conversation.
“So what’s going to happen to her?” Merle asked. “You won’t be taking her to the pound, will you?”
“No,” Ali said quickly. “You can be sure we won’t be taking her there or back to Harriet’s son, either.”
“Thank goodness for that.”
“But we still want to find him,” B. said. “If Harriet is still alive, we need to find her and see if she wants her dog back.”
“Well, when you locate that jerk, knock some sense into his head, won’t you?” Merle asked. “Do it for my sake and Bella’s.”
A few minutes later, when Ali and B. took their leave, Merle insisted on sending along her remaining three cans of Vienna sausages. “I don’t really care for them,” she said. “I only kept them on hand to give to Bella.”
When B. and Ali reached the elevator, Bella was once again determined to go straight past it, tugging for dear life on her end of the leash. “She wants to go home,” Ali murmured aloud over the lump that suddenly filled her throat.
“I know,” B. agreed. “The problem is it’s not her home anymore.”
With a sigh, Ali reached down, caught hold of the squirming dog, and bodily carried her into the elevator. When they left the building through the glass door, Ali put her down again. Bella immediately darted off to her right, making for the nearest patch of dead grass. Her obvious sense of purpose indicated that her dinnertime helping of Four Seasons hamburger had run its course. As the dog squatted to do her thing, Ali castigated herself for not having had the foresight to bring along one of Mrs. Hastings’s poop bags. Just then, to her surprise, B. pulled one out of his pants pocket.
“Why so shocked?” he asked with an infectious grin. “I don’t expect you to do everything!”
While he cleaned up after the dog, Ali located the tiny bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse and handed it over. “You get points for that one,” she said.
By the time they got back in the car, it was already nine o’clock. “Okay,” B. said. “The rehearsal is at eleven. What time is your spa appointment?”
“Nails at twelve, hair at one, makeup at one forty-five, wedding photos at two thirty, and wedding at four.”
“We’d better grab some breakfast now, then,” B. suggested. “I don’t want you fainting dead away from hunger when it’s time to say ‘I do.’ ”
“What about the dog? Mrs. Hastings isn’t due until eleven. Do we just leave her in the room?”
“No,” B said. “What say we call the hotel now and order breakfast from room service. That way the food will be ready and up in our room about the same time we get back to the hotel. We’ll be finished eating before Mrs. Hastings arrives.”
They got back to the room and let Bella loose. Once in the room, Ali was suitably impressed when she discovered that B. had made arrangements with a local florist to have a tiny but fully decorated Christmas tree delivered and set up in the far corner of their room.
“Colin and Colleen will be opening their stockings here bright and early tomorrow,” B. explained. “You can’t expect them to open Christmas stockings and presents in the morning without a proper Christmas tree.”
Ali kissed him. “I can already tell that you’re going to make a great grandpa.”
“Right,” he said, “and I’ve done this right. I get to have the good part—the grandkid part—without having to go through the trouble of actually raising kids of my own.”
Their breakfast arrived a few moments later, and Mrs. Hastings arrived to take charge of Bella soon after that. When it was time to go down to the Fountain Terrace for the rehearsal, Mrs. Hastings came along with Bella walking demurely at her side. Colin and Colleen were thrilled to see the dog. While they fussed over her, Ali explained that she and B. had learned that the dog’s name was Bella. As soon as the kids tried out the name, Bella responded with pricked ears and enthusiastic tail wags that left the children absolutely agog.
“How did you do that?” Colin asked. “Did you read her mind or something?”
“No,” B. answered in Ali’s stead. “Your grandma’s just smarter than the average bear.”
About that time the man chosen to officiate at the ceremony appeared, striding toward them across the terrace. Ali had worried a little about how all the pieces would sort themselves out. She needn’t have.
Even for the rehearsal, the patio with its roaring waterfall was already in perfect order. A small altar with an open Bible and two tall taper candles and one larger wedding candle had been set up in front of the rushing water. White baskets filled with bright red roses interspersed with holly were arranged on either side of the altar. A small electric organ had been brought in and placed discreetly to one side, while cloth-covered chairs for guests were arranged on either side of a narrow strip of scarlet carpet.
Ali was relieved to learn that the on-call pastor, Reverend Peter McCann, was a consummate professional—a retired naval captain who had served as a chaplain with the US Marine Corps. He was a tall, rangy, hawk-nosed guy with a gunmetal-gray crew cut. It soon became clear that he was accustomed to issuing orders and having them obeyed.
Athena had already warned the kids twice to stay away from the waterfall, but it wasn’t until Peter barked a similar order that they actually paid attention and hopped to it. Having a nun for a matron of honor may not have been an everyday occurrence for Peter, but he and Sister Anselm hit it off right away, and when Peter realized that the best man, Leland Brooks, had been a Royal Marine during the Korean War, the two of them got along like gangbusters, too.
The last to arrive was Stuart, who showed up on the terrace a few minutes late and more than a little nervous. To Ali’s immense relief, Peter quickly assessed the situation, took Stu in hand, and talked him down out of his tree without missing so much as a beat. When it came time to start, Stuart played the “Wedding March” flawlessly and without benefit of sheet music. Later he delivered his solo rendition of the “Wedding Song” in a resounding but incredibly sweet tenor.
Once the rehearsal was over, the womenfolk, Colleen included, headed down to the spa for their various beauty treatments, leaving the menfolk to do whatever they chose in their absence.
It was two thirty on the dot when Ali, dressed in her ivory sheath and leading Colleen by the hand, stepped out onto the terrace. The rest of the party, wearing their tuxes and matching cummerbunds, were already on hand. The photo session was quick and utterly professional.
The wedding itself started right on time as well, at four on the dot. Colin, carefully carrying the ring on a tiny silk pillow, walked down the aisle with measured steps as stiff and erect as one of his toy soldiers. Colleen followed him, scattering white rose petals on the red carpet. It wasn’t until Sister Anselm started down the aisle that Ali’s nerves got the best of her.
Chris noticed. He took her free hand, placed it on his arm, and then kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “You got yourself a good one this time around.”
Then, suddenly, it was Ali’s turn. She walked down the aisle, clinging to Chris’s arm and smiling back at B., who stood by the altar, grinning from ear to ear. Ali realized then that Chris was right, of course. This time she had found herself a good one.
There were no hitches or hiccups in the ceremony. If anyone expected a Las Vegas wedding ceremony to be on the tacky side, they were in for a surprise. Reverend McCann conducted the service in a dignified, heartfelt way that left Edie Larson sniffling quietly in her second-row pew. When Reverend McCann asked, “Do you take this woman . . .” he did so in a way that showed he meant it, and Ali heard the catch in B.’s throat as he whispered his response, “I do.”
When the ceremony was over and after B. had kissed the bride, they started back down the aisle and discovered that Colleen had held on to a few rose petals, which she flung at them on their way past. Standing in the receiving line, Ali noticed that the reception room had a baby grand piano in it, but since she hadn’t ordered music, she was surprised a short time later when she heard the tinkling of piano keys. Looking in that direction, she saw Stuart Ramey with a fascinated Colleen sitting beside him on the piano bench as he played an eclectic collection of music—everything from Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles. Later, when it came time for another round of toasts and speeches, Stuart raised a glass to B. and Ali and said, “I always dreamed of playing Vegas. Thanks to you, I’ve got that one off my bucket list.”
During the reception, Ali got a kick out of watching Colin follow the uniformed butlers as they delivered champagne flutes and canapés from trays that they held with one-handed dexterity. Shortly after that, she noticed that Colin had collected some sandwiches on a plate and was doing an admirable job of mimicking what he had seen earlier. When the plate came to grief a few minutes later, one of the butlers quickly grabbed up fallen sandwiches and broken pieces of pottery before sending Colin on his way with a smile.
At some point in the festivities, Ali noticed that Mrs. Hastings was seated with her parents, sipping a glass of champagne and chatting away.
“What’s the dog sitter doing here?” Ali asked Sister Anselm, who happened to be with her at the time. “I thought she was supposed to be up in the room.”
“During the rehearsal I heard your mother telling her that she had to come down for the reception.”
“Great,” Ali said. “Where’s Bella?”
“Over there.” Sister Anselm gestured with her glass. It took a moment for Ali to spot the dog, contentedly sacked out on Leland Brooks’s tuxedoed lap.
“Don’t worry,” the nun added. “Leland has her in hand, and Bella appears to be perfectly well behaved.”
“I don’t care what anybody says,” Ali insisted. “That dog is not going to our dinner.”
“Of course not,” Sister Anselm agreed calmly. “As matron of honor, I believe it’s my duty to see to it. I’ll have a word with Mrs. Hastings.”
The reception was wonderful. The bride and groom cut the cake, with Colin watching from the sidelines and shaking his head in disappointment after the newlyweds each had their bite.
“I thought you were going to smash it in each other’s face like they do on America’s Funniest Videos,” he complained to B. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because your grandmother would have killed me,” B. answered.
When they went down to dinner, Bella was nowhere in evidence. The food was great, the service was excellent, and everyone was in high spirits. Once dinner was over, it was still relatively early, but Ali was done. She and B. called it a night and went upstairs, where Mrs. Hastings assured them that she had just taken Bella out for one last walk and everything was shipshape.
Athena had come up earlier and done her Santa Claus turn. With B’s help, Ali dug out their collection of Christmas presents and arranged them on the coffee table under and around the tree. Among them they found a small holiday gift bag with Bella’s name on it and with a tiny stuffed Christmas bear inside. The card claimed the bear was from Santa, but Ali knew it was really from Mrs. Hastings.
In the bathroom, Ali found a silver box with a lush white ribbon on it. Inside was a beautiful nightgown and negligee, which she put on immediately. Out in the bedroom, she found B. sitting on the love seat with Bella dozing beside him. He whistled when Ali emerged.
“That’s my girl,” he said. “Did anybody ever tell you you’re gorgeous.”
She smiled back at him. “Thank you. Compliments like that might help you get lucky, especially on your wedding night, but what do we do about the dog?”
“Ignore her?” B. suggested hopefully.
That proved to be easier said than done, especially once they turned the lights out. The only solution that worked was for them to let Bella hide out under the covers while Ali and B. stayed on top.
At five sixteen the next morning, they decoded another piece of Bella’s history when Colin and Colleen pounded on the door, ready to open their stockings. At the sound of their urgent knocking, Bella scrambled out from under the covers and shot off the bed, barking like crazy. By the time Ali had her robe on, B. had scooped up the dog and opened the door.
“I just realized, Harriet didn’t have a doorbell,” he said sheepishly, holding on to the dog as Colin and Colleen bounded into the room, shouting “Merry Christmas” at the top of their lungs.
“I’ll get dressed and take her for a walk,” Ali offered. When she and Bella left, B. was still standing guard in front of the mantel, telling the kids they couldn’t touch their stockings until after their parents appeared.
Ali and Bella made a quick trip of it—down, out, and back. When they returned, several more bleary-eyed adults had been added to the mix—Bob and Edie as well as Chris and Athena. While Bob and Chris dragged in extra chairs from their rooms, B. got on the phone to room service and ordered a sumptuous breakfast: fruit and cheese platters, baskets of breakfast breads, carafes of coffee and pitchers of juice as well as two chocolate milks for the kids. On hearing that, Ali realized B. was taking yet another giant step up the road to being what Colin called an “epic” grandfather, as chocolate milk was something Colin and Colleen were allowed only occasionally as a special treat.
Once the adults were comfortably seated with coffee cups in hand, the kids tore into their stockings. That was followed by an hour-long jumble of Christmas present unwrapping, complete with an appropriate chorus of oohs and aahs. Even Bella got into the act, happily nosing into her gift bag, dragging out her toy, and then instinctively giving the thing a furious shake that would have broken the bear’s little neck had it been a living creature.
The gifts B. had helped the kids choose turned out to be a beautiful leather wallet for Chris and a tiny bottle of name-brand perfume for Athena, neither of which were items that could have been purchased out of their own limited budgets. Two embossed envelopes with Bob’s and Edie’s names on them contained certificates for shipboard credits on the Mediterranean cruise they would be taking in April. At last there were only two gifts left under the tree. Colin picked up the small gift-wrapped box and handed it to Ali. “That’s from Colleen and me,” he said proudly. “We picked it out all by ourselves.
Inside, Ali was surprised to find a bottle of ink—Mont Blanc ink, to be sure—but she was puzzled. Although she hadn’t used a fountain pen in years, she thanked the twins with an enthusiastic hug. At that point Colleen dashed back to retrieve the last package: a gift bag with the distinctive Mont Blanc logo on the outside. “This one’s from B.,” she explained.
There were two boxes hidden inside the tissue-filled bag. One contained a tiny red fountain pen with a single ruby on the clip.
“It’s beautiful,” Ali said. “Thank you.”
B. nodded. “Take a look at the other one.”
The second box contained note cards—Mont Blanc note cards. “I’m not sure if I remember how to use a fountain pen,” Ali said.
“You’ll need to practice, then,” B. suggested. “But in the meantime why don’t you open the box of cards?”
Ali did. Inside the box, just under the layer of protective tissue, was a check, one written on B.’s personal account. The payee was the Amelia Dougherty Scholarship Fund, a charity that Ali had been charged with running for the last several years. The eye-popping amount of the check was enough to fully fund four-year scholarships for at least two students.
“Thank you,” Ali said, leaning over and giving him an appreciative kiss.
“You’re welcome. It’s sort of a combination wedding/Christmas present. I suppose we’ll be doing a lot of that from now on.”
“But I thought we agreed we weren’t giving each other presents,” Ali said.
“Changed my mind.”
“But I didn’t give you anything.”
B. waved his hand in a gesture that encompassed the whole room, including all the people and the litter of opened packages, torn paper, and discarded ribbons. “You gave me all this,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”
B.’s cell phone rang somewhere in the room, and it took some time to unearth it. “Hey, Stu,” he said when he found it at last. “Merry Christmas.” He went out into the hall to take the call while Athena supervised the kids in a quick cleanup of wrapping debris.
A moment later a grim-faced B. popped his head back into the room and crooked his finger at Ali. “Bring Bella,” he said. “We’re going for a ride. Everybody else, take your time. Just lock the door when you leave.”
“Where to?” Ali asked as she and Bella joined him in the corridor.
“North Las Vegas,” he answered. “The Mount Charleston Nursing Home. Stu tracked down Harriet’s son, Martin Reid—not Marvin. That was his address on the RETURN TO SENDER sticker. Some more digging on Stu’s part turned up calls to the nursing home. I’m guessing that’s where he’s stowed his mother. According to Stu, Martin has also been systematically emptying his mother’s bank accounts.”
Grateful to have the information, Ali didn’t ask how Stu had happened to unearth that information. She was better off not knowing.
The nursing home, once they found it, was a grubby one-story building in a blighted section of town. Looking at the sad landscaping and the trash-littered front yard, Ali had a bad feeling about what the quality of care might be as they walked through the sliding front doors. She was relieved to find that inside, the place was clean and bright. The red-haired woman seated at the reception desk greeted them cheerfully.
“Good morning,” she said. “How may I help you?”
“We’re here to see Harriet Reid,” Ali said.
The woman typed a few letters into her computer. “She’s in room two twenty-two. That’ll be down the hall and to your left. You’ll both need to sign in, but just so you know, we don’t allow dogs in here.”
“Bella is Harriet’s dog,” Ali said firmly while B. dealt with the sign-in sheet. “She’s been lost. We found her on the street, where she was about to get run over. We wanted Harriet to know that we found her and that she’s all right.”
The clerk thought about that for a moment and then made up her mind. “After all, it’s Christmas, isn’t it?” she said. “What can a few minutes hurt? If the head nurse gives me any grief about it, I’ll tell her you snuck the dog past the front desk without my seeing her. She’s so little, it would be easy to miss her.”
B. and Ali started down the hall. They had taken only a few steps when Bella began pulling on the leash, her tiny feet scrabbling on the polished tile floor. Realizing that the dog must have caught Harriet’s scent, Ali simply let go. Bella skidded out of sight and into room 222 before Ali and B. made it as far as the doorway.
Inside the room, an elderly woman, slouching crookedly and belted into a wheelchair, dozed in front of a single window that opened onto the street. With a sharp yip, Bella launched herself into the air from the middle of the room. In one impossible leap, she landed in the sleeping woman’s lap.
Harriet awakened with a start. Then, realizing Bella was really there, the undamaged half of her face broke into a smile of pure joy. She pulled the dog into a tight one-armed embrace. As tears poured down Harriet’s one good cheek, the squirming dog, whimpering and wagging, licked them away.
For several moments, Harriet had eyes only for Bella. When she finally looked up and saw Ali and B., she shook her head. She pointed first at Bella and then at them before managing a garbled one-word question: “How?”
Remembering that a stroke had affected the woman’s ability to speak, Ali answered what she supposed had been asked.
“We found her in the street,” she said.
Harriet ran her hands over the dog’s still-prominent ribs. She shook her head and then made a gesture of raising a spoon to her mouth.
“Yes,” Ali said. “I think she has been hungry. But we’re feeding her. She’s getting plenty of food now.”
The woman nodded. For a time she struggled to force another word from her lips. At last it came out. “Son,” she said, then pointed at Bella.
“Your son was supposed to take care of Bella?” Ali asked.
Harriet nodded. The half smile disappeared from her face, and she resumed her desperate struggle to speak. “Bad,” she uttered with difficulty. “Bad boy.”
“That’s one of the things we wanted to talk to you about,” B. said, joining the conversation for the first time. “We have reason to believe that Martin may have been stealing your money. He’s stopped making payments on your condo, and he’s been emptying your bank accounts.”
Harriet turned her gaze to B.’s face and gave him a long stare. She struggled to get out the next word, but finally she managed it. “Police?” she asked?
“No,” Ali said quickly. “We’re not police. But would you like us to report him to the police? We could do it anonymously, through an elder abuse hotline. They could look into the situation and, if necessary, appoint a guardian—a trustee, most likely, to look after your financial situation.”
After several moments of thinking the situation over, Harriet nodded her assent. “Yes,” she murmured, with some effort. “Yes, please.”
For another moment the room was silent. Bella had settled down and was curled into a contented ball in Harriet’s lap. Absently, Harriet ran her hand over the dog’s body, then looked up at Ali again.
“Son . . . mean . . . to Bella,” she managed.
Ali nodded. “We believe that, too,” she said. “We think he has been.”
“You take?” Harriet asked, pointing first at the dog and then at Ali. It was an eloquent if brief plea, and there was no mistaking it. There was a large old-fashioned electric clock on the wall. In the silence that followed, they all heard it ticking.
Finally Ali nodded. “Yes,” she said at last. “We’ll take her.”
Struggling with one hand, Harriet lifted Bella up out of her lap and held her out to Ali.
“Thank . . . you,” she said, patting the dog’s head once as Ali took hold of her. By then, unbridled tears were streaming down Harriet’s weathered cheek.
“Go,” she commanded urgently. “Go now.”
With Bella whimpering and struggling to squirm out of her grasp, Ali turned and did as she’d been told. Walking down the corridor, they heard the sounds of a woman sobbing brokenly in the room behind them.
“At least she got to say goodbye,” Ali whispered through her own sobs.
“Yes,” B. said with a nod. “They both did.”
“Well, Merry Christmas, buddy,” she added. “It looks like we just got ourselves a dog.”
A Last Goodbye
Ali Reynolds is finally getting married to her longtime love B. Simpson. They wanted a simple Christmas Eve wedding, but nothing is ever simple with Ali. Even as a motley crew of her friends—Leland Brooks, Sister Anselm, and others—descend on Vegas, the bride-to-be finds herself juggling last-minute wedding plans and a mystery in the form of a stray miniature dachshund. Ali’s grandson rescues the little dog, but Ali’s not in the market for a new pet right before her honeymoon, and leaves no stone unturned in hunting for the dog’s owner. But what she finds is more than just a shaggy dog story…Bella’s elderly owner has vanished, and her son seems to be behind it. So it’s Ali and B. to the rescue—and still making it to the church on time!