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Authors: Livia J. Washburn

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“We'll be looking forward to it.”

“Well, if that's all, I need to call the owners of this goat and tell them that ol' Festus is doing better and they can come pick him up.”

Phyllis said, “Thank you, Dr. Baxter,” and she and Carolyn started toward the car.

At that moment, an SUV drove around the vet clinic and headed for the barn. Baxter saw it coming and muttered, “Uh-oh.”

“What's wrong?” Phyllis asked.

Before Baxter could answer, the SUV came to a stop and a burly man in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap got out. He looked angry and ready to plunge right into trouble . . . or start some himself.

Chapter 6

B
axter moved forward to get between the newcomer and Phyllis and Carolyn. He didn't seem to be hurrying, but Phyllis noticed that it didn't take him long to cover the distance. He gave the man in the flannel shirt a curt nod and said, “Hello, Kyle. What can I do for you?”

“You know good and well what you can—” The man stopped short. He looked at Phyllis and Carolyn as if he had just noticed they were there. With a visible effort, he controlled his temper.

Baxter turned to Phyllis and went on. “Thanks for coming by, ladies. I'll see you next week. Buck's appointment is the day before Halloween, isn't it?”

“I think that's right,” Phyllis said.

“Then I'll see you twice.”

Clearly, Baxter wanted the two women to leave before he continued his conversation with this man, Kyle. Phyllis wasn't sure that was a good idea. Kyle might not be as likely to cause trouble if there were witnesses.

Of course, she might be overreacting, Phyllis reminded herself. Just because Kyle was annoyed about something didn't mean he was going to throw a punch at Baxter or anything like that. Anyway, even if he did, Baxter was a relatively young man who seemed to be very fit. Kyle was older, in his forties, with a considerable paunch. He was taller and heavier than Hank Baxter, though.

“Come on, Phyllis,” Carolyn said. “Let's let these men get on with their business.”

“All right,” Phyllis said. She was still uneasy about leaving Baxter there alone with Kyle, but on the other hand, this was none of her affair. As she opened her car door, she added, “See you next week, Dr. Baxter.”

The veterinarian lifted a hand in farewell as Phyllis and Carolyn got in the car. Phyllis turned the car around and drove away.

As she passed the SUV, she saw a sign on the vehicle's door that read
WOODS
'
S
GOLDEN
RETRIEVERS
, with a phone number and a website underneath it. Out of habit, she filed that information away in her brain.

“That man certainly seemed to be upset about something,” Carolyn commented as they passed the clinic building and headed up the driveway to the street.

“Yes, and I'm not sure we should have left,” Phyllis said.

“Dr. Baxter can take care of himself, I would think. Besides, it's the middle of the morning. Broad daylight. What could possibly . . . ? Oh. I forgot for a minute there who I was talking to.”

“Don't start that,” Phyllis said. “I go plenty of places and do plenty of things without anybody being murdered. Good grief.”

Carolyn didn't say anything for a long moment. Then, “I don't know about you, but I think I'll be watching the news tonight anyway.”

*   *   *

Despite what she had told Carolyn, despite what she wanted to believe herself, Phyllis had to admit that deep down she was relieved when there was nothing on the news that night about any sort of trouble at a veterinary clinic in Weatherford.

Just to be sure, though, the next day she called her son, Mike, who was a Parker County deputy sheriff, and asked him to check.

He promised to do so, but then asked, “What are you mixed up in now, Mom?”

“What do you mean?” Phyllis said. “I'm not mixed up in anything.”

“Then why ask about possible trouble at some vet clinic?”

“It's the one where Sam took his new dog. I told you about that, remember?”

“Sure, but it doesn't explain why you thought something might have happened there,” Mike said.

Phyllis hesitated, then said, “I was there yesterday, and there was a man who was upset with the doctor about something. I felt bad about leaving.”

“Well, you shouldn't. The last thing you need to be doing is getting involved in a fistfight.”

“I know, but I can't help being curious.”

“Being curious has gotten you in trouble before,” Mike pointed out.

“Yes, and it's gotten some people
out
of trouble who didn't deserve to be there, too,” Phyllis responded.

He knew perfectly well what she meant. She had cleared the names of several people wrongly accused of murder, and the real killers in those cases were now behind bars because of her curiosity and determination.

Since Mike couldn't argue with what she had just said, he told her, “I'll see what I can find out. In the meantime, try to stay out of trouble.”

“I'm your mother. Shouldn't I be saying that to you?”

“You'd think so. I'll call you back, Mom.”

Mike hung up, and Phyllis said, “Hmph.” He was probably right, but he could have been more polite about it.

With that taken care of, she went to her computer. Sam was in the backyard with Buck, Carolyn was in the kitchen, and Eve sat in one of the armchairs on the other side of the living room with her needlework basket in her lap. Eve had never been much of one for crafts, but she had taken it up more in recent months.

Phyllis remembered the website she had seen on the door of the angry man's pickup at the vet clinic the day before. She opened a new tab and entered it, and a moment later she was looking at the site for Woods's Golden Retrievers.

A large photo of a handsome golden retriever dominated the site's home page. According to the graphic under the photo, the dog's name was Texas Maximus, and he was an award-winning show dog who had brought home trophies from all over the country. He had even competed in the National Dog Show, the one that was on television every Thanksgiving after the parades. Phyllis figured she must have seen him, since they always watched the dog show. Well, she watched as much as she could while cooking. It had become a tradition in her house.

There were other pages with more pictures of the award-winning Texas Maximus, along with other dogs that had come from the breeding operation run by Kyle Woods. As soon as Phyllis saw a picture of Woods, she knew he was the same man who had driven up to the barn at Dr. Baxter's place while she and Carolyn were there.

He didn't look nearly as angry and threatening in these photos, of course. In fact, he wore a friendly smile on his face. The flannel shirt and baseball cap seemed to be his usual garb. He had them on in just about every picture. He was always with one of the dogs, either Texas Maximus or another golden retriever. Phyllis couldn't really tell them apart, but she supposed an aficionado of the breed could.

She clicked on Woods's bio and found that he had been in the dog-breeding business for fifteen years and was widely respected as a breeder of golden retrievers. Texas Maximus was the best dog he'd ever had, but a number of others had won awards as well.

Texas Maximus was also available for stud service, and when Phyllis checked out that page, she was surprised at the fees Woods charged. They weren't exactly astronomical, but they were higher than Phyllis would have expected. But to be honest, if someone had asked her what dog breeders charged for that particular service, she wouldn't have had any idea. But Woods's fees just seemed high. He had to be making a pretty penny off of Texas Maximus.

Of course, the dog probably wasn't complaining about being exploited.

There wasn't much about Woods's personal life on the website. Phyllis decided she had learned all she was going to,
so she closed that tab and started to stand up from the computer.

She stopped and on a hunch did a quick Internet search for Woods, on both the Web and in the blogosphere. Sam had taught her about that. She was surprised by the sheer number of Webpages and blogs about dog breeding that the search turned up. It would take a long time to go through all of them, so she began clicking on the links at random.

It appeared that Woods was well respected as a breeder, but Phyllis got the impression from the blogs that he wasn't particularly well-liked. Some of the comments on various posts referred to him as arrogant and short-tempered. Phyllis could believe that, having seen the way he looked the day before when he'd gotten out of his pickup and confronted Hank Baxter.

On the other hand, she didn't find anything to indicate that he mistreated his dogs. That was one point in his favor, she supposed. There was nothing to make her think he was anything other than honest in his business dealings, too.

“Whatcha doin'?” Sam asked from behind her. Phyllis had been so caught up in her research that she hadn't heard him come in. He went on. “You're not thinkin' about gettin' a dog yourself, are you?”

“No, of course not,” she said as she turned the monitor off. “I think one dog is plenty around here, don't you?”

“Well, I don't know,” Sam said as he scratched his jaw. “Buck might enjoy havin' a playmate, and that backyard's probably big enough for two dogs. I reckon it'd be better to wait and see about that, though.”

Phyllis stood up and nodded. She said, “I think so, too.”

“So why were you lookin' at dog-breedin' websites?”

Sam was certainly being persistent today, she thought. And she didn't really have a good answer for him, either. No crime had been committed that she was aware of. And yet she had been checking out Kyle Woods as she would have done if he were a suspect in a murder she was investigating.

Was she becoming completely paranoid?

Well, no, that wasn't exactly the situation, she told herself. She didn't think Woods was out to get
her
. Woods didn't even know who she was. By now there was a very good chance that he had forgotten all about seeing her at the vet clinic.

Overly suspicious . . . that was a better description of how she was feeling right now.

Those thoughts flashed through her mind in a second. Sam was still waiting for an answer, so she said, “I was just curious, is all. I might be interested in getting another dog someday. But it was just idle speculation.”

Without looking up from her needlework, Eve said, “You may have just opened a door there, dear.”

“Nah, don't worry about it,” Sam said. “Right now my hands are plenty full takin' care of Buck. It's been a while since I've had a dog. I'd sort of forgotten just how much work they can be, especially one who's got to have pills like he does.” Sam smiled. “Lucky for me he's got a good appetite and gobbles down whatever I put in front of him. It's been pretty easy hidin' his pills in his food.”

Phyllis eased toward the kitchen, glad that Sam's mind seemed to have moved on from finding her looking at dog-breeding websites. She didn't want him to think that she had become obsessed with crime!

When she went into the kitchen, Carolyn said, “There you are. I've been thinking about something.”

Not the same things she had been thinking about, Phyllis would have been willing to bet.

“We're making treats for the dogs at that Halloween party,” Carolyn went on, “but I'm sure the humans would like something, too. Why don't we bake some cookies and take them with us to the party?”

“You mean something we'd come up with together?” Phyllis asked.

“I suppose so. We don't want to overdo it.”

Phyllis was glad to hear that. One informal competition between the two of them was enough. She nodded and said, “I think that sounds like a fine idea. What sort of cookies were you considering?”

For the next few minutes, they discussed the subject and wound up agreeing that they would bake a batch of coconut cream pie cookies, which sounded both delicious and intriguing to Phyllis. It was mostly Carolyn's idea, but that didn't bother her.

When the phone rang, Mike's number came up on the caller ID. Phyllis recognized it and said, “I've got it.”

When she answered, Mike said, “I looked into that thing you asked me about, Mom. There were no reports of any trouble yesterday at any vet clinic, anywhere in Parker County. Does that put your mind at ease?”

“As a matter of fact, it does. Thank you, Mike.” She paused. “What are you and Sarah doing for Halloween with Bobby?”

“Oh, the usual, I guess. Trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, maybe go to the fall festival at the church. And we'll
come by your house, too. Bobby would be disappointed if his grandma didn't get to see him in his costume.”

“What is it?”

Mike chuckled and said, “That would be telling. You'll see it next week.”

“All right,” Phyllis said with a smile. “The reason I asked, there's going to be a party at that vet clinic I was talking about.”

“A Halloween party for animals?”

“And their owners. Carolyn and I are going, and I thought Bobby might like to see all the pets dressed up in their costumes.”

“He probably would get a kick out of that,” Mike said. “Where and when is it?”

Phyllis told him, and he promised to pass along the information to his wife, Sarah.

“I can't make any promises until I check with her, but we'll try to make it,” he said. “So long, Mom.”

Phyllis thanked him again for his help and said good-bye.

So that was it, she thought when she had hung up. There was absolutely no reason for her to be suspicious about anything.

Chapter 7

T
he days went by quickly. Phyllis and Carolyn worked on their recipes for the contest in
A Taste of Texas
, for their doggie treats, and for the coconut cream pie cookies. Although they kept the contest recipes to themselves for the moment, the other recipes were no secret and Buck seemed to be perfectly happy to serve as a guinea pig for the different kinds of treats.

When he gobbled down both treats with equal enthusiasm, Carolyn said, “See? What did I tell you? Dogs just aren't very discriminating in their taste.”

“Why are we doing this, then?” Phyllis wanted to know.

“For the dogs, of course. And who knows? They might prefer one over the other, and we know they'll have healthy treats.”

Sam volunteered his services as a taster for the coconut cream pie cookies, and so did Mike and Bobby when they were over at Phyllis's house on Sunday afternoon. The cookies were
a big hit and helped take their mind off the latest travails of the Dallas Cowboys as they watched that week's game on TV.

Monday dawned blustery, with a chilly wind and thick gray clouds scudding across the sky. That was typical autumn weather in Texas, too, replacing the glorious fall days they had been experiencing.

From the kitchen window, Phyllis could see Buck huddled in his doghouse. She said over her shoulder to Sam, who sat at the table sipping coffee, “You haven't bought a bed for Buck so we can bring him inside yet, have you?”

“Nope. Meant to this weekend, but I never got around to it.”

“Well, I think you should today. He looks fine out there in his doghouse, but I'll bet he'd be more comfortable inside.”

“Are you sure you're all right with that?”

“Well . . . I don't particularly want him on the furniture, but I don't see anything wrong with letting him stay in the utility room.”

Phyllis knew Carolyn would poke fun at her when she found out about this, but at least she hadn't done as Carolyn had predicted. She hadn't waited for Sam to ask her if he could bring Buck in the house. She had made the offer on her own initiative.

“All right. I'll take care of it this morning,” Sam said. “I'm supposed to take Buck back to the vet this afternoon for his follow-up on that busted leg.”

“Do you want me to help you?”

“Sure, anytime. I'm always glad to have your company, Phyllis. You know that.”

She smiled and said, “All right. You get the bed this morning, and we'll take him to see Dr. Baxter this afternoon.”

“And tomorrow afternoon's the Halloween party. Gonna be a busy week.”

*   *   *

Sam came back from the store with a large, comfortable-looking bed for Buck.

“It's made out of orthopedic foam,” he explained as he placed the bed in the utility room, next to the dryer. That would be a nice warm place for Buck to curl up. “Figured with his busted leg he might appreciate the support. I know how much better a good mattress makes you feel.”

Phyllis put down a water bowl, and Sam brought Buck in from the back porch. The Dalmatian looked warily at the new bed for a moment before he stepped up on it, turned around several times, and finally lay down and curled up. He sighed in what seemed to be contentment.

“There you go,” Sam told him. “Just don't get the idea that you're a full-time house dog now, fella. You're still gonna be spendin' most of your time outside when the weather's nice.”

Buck just looked at him as if to say,
We'll see about that.

After lunch they got into Sam's pickup with Phyllis driving and Sam holding Buck in his lap, as they had done before. Buck wasn't hungover and groggy from the anesthetic this time, so he squirmed more than he had on the previous trip. He put his nose to the window and watched the landscape passing by with great interest.

A couple of cars were in the vet clinic parking lot, but the waiting room was empty when Phyllis and Sam went inside. Holly sat on a stool behind the counter, and as soon as Phyllis saw the redhead's face, she knew something was wrong.

It took her only a second to realize what that something was. Loud, angry voices came from behind a closed door off the hallway behind the counter. That was Dr. Baxter's office, Phyllis thought. She couldn't make out the words, but she could tell the voices belonged to a man and a woman. From their tone, it was obvious what was going on.

Only a married couple fought with that much passion and intensity.

Holly gave Phyllis and Sam a weak smile and said, “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher. Why don't you take Buck into that exam room and I'll be with you in just a second?”

She pointed to the second door marked
EXAM
ROOM
that opened off the waiting room.

Sam nodded and said, “That'll be fine.” Phyllis opened the door for him, and he carried Buck into the exam room and set him on the metal table.

“Goodness,” Phyllis said quietly as she closed the door. “That didn't sound pleasant.”

Before Sam could say anything, the door on the other side of the room opened and Holly came in from the rear hallway. She put Buck's folder on the counter next to the sink and asked, “How's he doing?”

“Just great, as far as we can tell,” Sam replied. “I haven't had to give him any pain pills in a few days, and he's been leavin' the cast alone.”

“That's fine. Dr. Baxter will be with you in a few minutes.”

She left them there, and when she was gone, Sam said, “I'm sorry about that Mrs. Fletcher business.”

“Oh, don't worry about it,” Phyllis said. “It's not the first time she's made that mistake. She's not the first one to do it, either.”

“Maybe not, but I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”

“Do I act like I'm uncomfortable?”

“Well, no, but . . .”

“I'm fine with things, Sam,” Phyllis said. “If anybody else isn't, that's their problem, not ours.”

“I reckon you're right about that.”

Several minutes went by in relative silence. These rooms weren't very big, Phyllis thought. Anybody who was claustrophobic might start getting nervous pretty quickly in them. She was content, though, to just sit and wait with Sam and Buck.

Phyllis heard people talking through the walls, but these voices didn't sound angry, so she figured Dr. Baxter was in the exam room next door, dealing with whatever sort of patient was in there. More time passed. Sitting in a vet's exam room was a lot like sitting in a regular doctor's exam room, she thought. Even though everything was fine, after a while you couldn't help but start to feel a little nervous and uncomfortable.

Maybe she was a little claustrophobic after all. She hadn't liked being locked up in a jail cell, either, she recalled.

Whatever the cause, it was a real relief when the rear door opened and Dr. Baxter came into the room. He looked a little harried, but he put a smile on his face as he nodded to them.

“Hello, folks. Sorry you had to wait. We were dealing with a little, ah, emergency.”

“That's all right,” Sam said. “These things happen in doctors' offices.”

Baxter said, “They do in this one, anyway.” He grimaced slightly, as if he couldn't help it, and then gave a little shake of his head. “So, how's Buck doing?”

For the next few minutes, they discussed Buck's recovery.
Baxter checked his temperature, listened to his heart and respiration, and looked at his eyes and teeth.

“His appetite is good?”

“His appetite is fine,” Sam said. “He seems like a perfectly healthy dog except for the broken leg.”

“That's because he is,” Baxter said. “His heart and lungs sound great. Another four weeks and we'll take X-rays to see about getting that cast off. The fracture and the incision should be healed by then, and he'll be set for a long, happy life, I hope.”

“He will be if I have anything to say about it,” Sam declared, and once again Phyllis was struck by the amount of feeling he had for this dog.

Baxter looked at Phyllis and asked, “Are you and your friend still coming tomorrow with the dog treats?”

“Yes, we are,” she said. “With all you have going on around here, I'm surprised you remembered.”

“Hey, it's a nice thing to do. I try to remember people who do nice things.”

“We're bringing some coconut cream pie cookies for the adults. I mean the people. The humans.” Phyllis laughed. “Goodness, I'm starting to think of pets as people's babies, too.”

“It's hard not to. Animals are part of the family. At least, that's the way it ought to be.” He didn't explain what he meant by that. “I'll see you tomorrow, I suppose, and I'd like to see Buck again in another week just to monitor him. There's no charge for this today, since it was just a follow-up.”

Phyllis and Sam left the exam room through the front door. Baxter went out the back, but he circled around and came up behind the counter in the waiting room.

“Give Buck an appointment for next Monday or Tuesday, Holly,” he told the redhead.

“Of course, Dr. Baxter,” she said as she swiveled her stool to look at her computer monitor and reached for the mouse.

The glass front door of the clinic opened. The blond woman Phyllis had seen there before came in and said sharply, “One more thing, Hank.”

Baxter looked angry, uncomfortable, and embarrassed, all at the same time. He said, “Good Lord, Susan, have you been sitting out there in your car all this time, stewing?”

“No. I started to go back to my office, but I decided I couldn't let you get away with it so I turned around.”

“Get away with what, for God's sake?”

“Her,” Susan Baxter said as she leveled a finger at Holly. “How dare you accuse me of anything when you have
her
right here in your office?”

“What?” Baxter rested both hands on the counter and leaned forward. He seemed to have forgotten that Phyllis and Sam were there. “Are you insane? There's nothing going on between Holly and me. She runs the office and helps out as an assistant. That's all.”

Holly looked like she wanted to crawl under the counter and hide, but she swallowed hard and said, “It really is, Mrs. Baxter. I mean, Dr. Baxter.”

Susan gave her an unpleasant smirk and said, “Well, of course you'd say that. But I know the truth.”

“No, you really don't—” Holly began.

Baxter broke in with a bitter edge to his voice. “Don't waste your breath. She only believes what she wants to believe.”

Susan snorted and said, “That's because I'm not a fool.”

She turned, jerked the door open, and stalked out of the office, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind her.

“Well,” Baxter said into that silence after a few heartbeats, “looks like I owe you another apology.”

“Nope,” Sam said. “None of our business. I'm sorry for your troubles, though.”

Baxter shrugged and said, “These things happen, I guess. People can't get along all the time, even when they're married.”

“Especially when they're married,” Phyllis said. “But I'm sure your wife didn't really mean what she said.”

“Oh, she meant it. But she's wrong. There's nothing going on here that shouldn't be.”

“Of course not,” Holly said quickly. “In fact, I'm dating Tommy. We're talking about getting married and going to veterinary school together.”

“Which I think is a great idea,” Baxter said, “although I'd hate to lose the two of you here at the clinic.” He forced a smile back onto his face and went on. “I'll be out in the barn, Holly.”

“All right, Doctor.”

Baxter went down the hall and out a rear door. Sam cleared his throat and said to Holly, “You were about to make us an appointment for next week.”

“Oh, of course, that's right.” Holly checked her computer again and asked, “How about Monday at one o'clock?”

“Sounds good to me.” Sam looked at Phyllis as if asking her if that was all right with her.

“You know me,” she said. “My schedule is wide-open.”

“All right. I've got you down.” Holly picked up a pen and wrote the date and time on a card, which she slid across the counter to Phyllis. “I'm sorry you folks had to be subjected to that scene.”

“Don't worry about it,” Phyllis said. “I thought Mrs. Baxter was a doctor, too.”

“Oh, she is. She's a surgeon.”

“She doesn't seem to keep regular office hours. This is twice she's been here when you'd think she would be in her own office.”

“She's a very good doctor. People are willing to wait for her, I guess.”

Sam said, “I'm sorta glad she didn't become a vet, too. Not sure I'd want her takin' care of ol' Buck here.”

“Yes, I have to admit I feel sorry for Hank sometimes,” Holly said. “I shouldn't say that, but it's true.” She took a deep breath and went on. “Oh, well. I'll see you tomorrow at the party, I guess.”

“Is Mrs. Baxter coming?” Phyllis asked.

“I don't think so.” Holly's tone made it clear she hoped that would be the case.

Phyllis and Sam both thanked Holly and left the office. As they were driving away, Sam said, “That redheaded gal may be datin' the other fella who works here, but I'd say she's got a little crush on the doc, too.”

“When she's not thinking about it, she calls him Hank instead of Dr. Baxter,” Phyllis said. “Of course, it could be that's just because it's an informal office.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Sam said, but he didn't sound convinced of it.

Phyllis wasn't, either. She had no real reason to think that Dr. Baxter was having an affair with Holly, and she hoped that wasn't the case. She felt an instinctive liking for Baxter. That would be diminished if she knew he was cheating on his wife . . . even a wife seemingly as unpleasant as Susan Baxter.

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