Margaret Turnbull was a busy woman. She had a kennel full of Standard Poodles to care for, an article to finish writing for
, a litter of new puppies due after Christmas, and a big, wet, black dog lying on the grooming table in front of her waiting to be blown dry. What she didn't have was time for needless interruptions.
Unless they came from her husband, Max, whom she adored.
“Eileen wants us to do what?” she asked. Turning off the switch on the freestanding dryer to silence its loud whine, she tilted the nozzle away and looked up. Peg was quite certain she'd heard Max right the first time. Still, she wanted to hear him say the words again.
“Eileen and Michael have invited us to come for Christmas dinner,” Max repeated.
Michael was Max's older brother. Eileen was his wife. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Those children had barely been teenagers the last time she'd seen them, Peg realized. Busy with school and friends, and everything else that young people got up to, neither had been present on the infrequent occasions Peg had seen her in-laws recently.
“I can't imagine what prompted them to do something like that.” Abruptly her good mood vanished. A vague feeling of disgruntlement took its place.
Christmas, now just a week away, was her favorite holiday. Peg loved everything about the occasion, from the cheery decorations to the sound of Christmas carols to the holiday pastries and sweets. Just the heady scent of evergreen was enough to lift her spirits.
Christmas was supposed to be a time of joy and goodwill. Except, Peg thought unhappily, where her in-laws were concerned.
“Christmas dinner with your family,” she said with a small frown. “What an odd idea. You and Michael are barely on speaking terms. And he and Eileen have never liked me.”
“Don't be sillyâ” Max began.
“Oh pish.” Peg's exclamation stopped him in his tracks. “We've been married for twenty-five years. We certainly don't need to rehash that old discussion. I am well and truly over the fact that your family disapproves of me for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that rather than producing a houseful of children, you and I ended up surrounded by Standard Poodles instead.”
“You can hardly be held accountable for that outcome,” Max replied with a twinkle in his eye. “Considering that the wedding present I got for you was the beginning of the Cedar Crest line.”
“Lovely, lovely Laurel.” Peg remembered their first Standard Poodle with enormous fondness. “A ten-week-old bundle of fluff and mischief with a shiny, black nose, beguiling eyes, and an old soul. I took one look and fell madly in love.”
“You weren't the only one who was madly in love,” Max said.
Peg slanted her husband a look. Her memories of their courtship were decidedly different. She recalled pursuing Max ardentlyâright up until the day she had let him catch her.
“Don't go mushy on me now,” she said. “At this late date, I refuse to believe that you're really an old softie at heart.”
Max just grinned. He knew full well that no one ever convinced his wife of anything that hadn't started out as her own idea.
“It's amazing how far we've come since then,” said Peg. “And that here we are, so many years later, surrounded by Laurel's descendants.”
She gazed around the tidy kennel with satisfaction. The area in which they were standing was part grooming space and part sitting room. Two walls were covered with win photos, eight-by-ten pictures taken at the variety of dog shows over the years where she and Max had handled numerous Cedar Crest Standard Poodles to their championships. A third wall contained an overflowing trophy cabinet. The fourth had floor-to-ceiling shelves, filled with the assortment of equipment needed to keep their dogs' coats in top condition.
Through a wide arched doorway, Peg could see the Poodles themselves. Two or three were sitting up and watching the activity in the grooming room. The rest were stretched out comfortably in their indoor runs. Currently she and Max had ten Standard Poodles, including Targa, the black male waiting patiently on the grooming table for her to resume his blow-dry, and Bonnie, who had finished her championship in the spring and was expecting her first litter of puppies shortly.
“Not entirely amazing,” said Max, “when you think of all the hard work and dedication that's gone into what we've accomplished.”
Reminded of the task at hand, Peg picked up a pin brush, turned the dryer back on, and repositioned the nozzle. If Targa's hair spent too much time air-drying it would begin to kink and curl. She needed the strands to lie smooth and plush, otherwise she would have to wet the Poodle down and start the job over. With nimble fingers and a practiced stroke, she began to work her way through the coat once more.
“Not to mention a little luck,” she said, lifting her voice to be heard above the dryer's dull roar. “And plenty of good times along the way.”
“Speaking of good times,” said Max. “About Christmas . . .”
Peg sighed. She should have known that Max wouldn't allow himself to be sidetracked.
“Did Eileen happen to mention why she and Michael were offering this invitation out of the blue?” she asked.
“No. The question occurred to me too, but it seemed rude to ask.”
“This is the first Christmas since your mother died,” Peg mentioned.
“I know.” Max nodded. “Even though it's been nearly a year, maybe the thought of having to celebrate the holiday without Nana made my brother want to reconnect with what little family he has left.”
“Could be he and Eileen are trying to extend an olive branch.”
“If so, that would be a pleasant surprise. And if it
the case, I certainly don't want to be the one to push them away.”
“Nor do I,” Peg agreed. Especially since she was the one who'd caused the initial rift between her husband and his family. Not that it had been her fault.
Right from the start, Max's relatives had never accepted her. Young and eager to please when they'd first met, Peg had found her attempts to cultivate a cordial relationship stonewalled by Max's close-knit Irish Catholic clan. Max's mother had made little secret of the fact she didn't feel that Peg was good enough for her darling second son. The more Max had stood up for her, the more his family had resented her influence over him.
Eventually she and Max had grown weary of the discord, and it had become easier for Peg to simply stay away. Over the ensuing years, except for the occasional family gathering to mark an important milestone, Max and Peg had limited their contact with the rest of the Turnbulls. They had had each other and their Poodles. That was all they needed.
Eleven months earlier, Peg had wondered whether Nana's death might draw the fractured family closer together in their grief. Instead it had only driven them farther apart.
And now this. An unexpected invitation to Christmas dinner.
Oh joy, thought Peg. She supposed she could suck it up and deal with her husband's relatives for one afternoon. Even if it meant sacrificing her favorite holiday for the cause.
Distracted by her thoughts, Peg let her fingers blunder through a snag in Targa's damp coat. The big Poodle lifted his head. His dark eyes looked up at her reproachfully.
“I know,” she murmured. Gently she patted his head back down into place on the matted tabletop. “I'm sorry. That was my fault.”
Max watched the interplay between his wife and the young dog. Peg had always had her own language for dealing with their Standard Poodles. She understood their thoughts and needs better than anyone else. Even better than him, and that was saying something.
Years earlier, he'd been forced to choose between the love of his life and the family who'd thought that if they made his life difficult enough, he would bow to their will. It hadn't even been a contest.
It still wasn't.
“It's up to you,” he said now. “I know how you feel about Christmas. If you don't want to spend the day with my family, we certainly don't have to.”
Peg didn't even hesitate. “Call Eileen back and tell her we'll be there,” she said. “Find out if we can bring anything to help with dinner. I'm good with desserts.”
Max nodded. He knew that. Peg's sweet tooth was legendary.
“And think of some presents we can get to take with us,” she added.
relatives,” Peg pointed out, “And besides, I'm busy. I have a dog to blow-dry.”
Max went to make the phone call. He left the kennel with a smile on his face.
On Christmas Eve, Max and Peg were seated in their living room on either side of a roaring fire. They had lowered the lights, and the sole illumination in the room came from the twinkling bulbs on their plush, eight-foot Christmas tree. Both Max and Peg were sipping oversized mugs of marshmallow-topped hot chocolate. Both had a Standard Poodle draped across their feet.
Max's companion was retired show dog Champion Cedar Crest Salute. Beside him lay Champion Cedar Crest Bonaventure. Peg was keeping a close eye on Bonnie, whose first litter was due in only a matter of days. As the bitch rolled her shoulders, then stretched out on one side in an attempt to shift her large belly into a more comfortable position, Peg reached down and scratched behind the big black Poodle's ears.
Bonnie wasn't the only one who was feeling uncomfortable, Peg realized. And maybe even a little grumpy. Especially since it was her own fault for feigning a modicum of enthusiasm a week earlier when presented with the invitation to share Christmas dinner with her in-laws. Now that the day was almost upon her, Peg found that the only emotion she could muster with regard to the upcoming occasion was one of dismal resignation.
At least she was bringing the pies, Peg thought. That would help.
Max took one look at the expression on his wife's face, set down his mug on the table beside him, and said, “We don't
to go, you know. I can call Eileen in the morning and cancel.”
“You'll do no such thing. It's much too late to back out now. I wouldn't dream of doing something that rude.” Peg paused then added, “Even to your relatives.”
“I can't imagine why.” Max shook his head. “They've never treated you with the same courtesy.”
“Nor you, recently,” Peg pointed out. “When Nana was here, she was able to keep the peace between you and your brother. But once she was gone, it seemed like the two of you were immediately at each other's throats.”
“Our problems started long before that.”
Peg dipped her head in a small nod. For the most part, she purposely kept herself removed from Turnbull family business, but she could guess the event her husband was referring to.
“Three years ago,” Max growled, “when Michael convinced Nana to place her investment account in his hands. Anyone could see that was a terrible idea. I tried to warn her, but she didn't listen to me.”
to listen to you. There's a big difference. Nana knew exactly what she was doing. Michael was struggling. He'd just been let go from another brokerage firm. She wanted to help.”
Max's body stiffened in annoyance. Feeling the sudden tension, Salute sat up and pressed his body against Max's legs, an offer of comfort and support. Idly, Max reached over and nudged his fingers into the Poodle's topknot. Salute tipped his head to one side and leaned into the caress.
“Nana wouldn't have had to help if Michael had been any good at his job,” Max said. “It wasn't her fault that he ran through half the brokerage houses in New York like a stack of dominoes. Obviously he wasn't cut out to be an investment counselor. I don't know why he couldn't just accept that. If not for Nana's connections and the sizable account she entrusted to him, Michael would have been finished on Wall Street.”
“Which is precisely why she stepped in,” Peg said smoothly. “Michael was her oldest son. She couldn't bear to see him fail.”
“Nana's money was no different than any of the previous accounts he'd managed.” Max's tone was bitter. “It ran through his fingers like water. I tried to stay on top of things. I could have intervened before the situation became dire, but Michael kept blocking my attempts to find out what was happening with the investments he'd chosen for her.”
“And Nana let him do that,” Peg pointed out. “She positioned herself between the two of you on purpose. Your mother was a smart woman. Don't think for a moment that she was Michael's dupe. I'm quite certain she knew exactly what she was doing. The most important thing to Nana was family unityâand she wanted her two sons to get along.”
didn't last,” Max said unhappily.
No, it hadn't, Peg reflected. When Nana's will had been read, she had left the bulk of her remaining estate to Max. Their younger sister, Rose, who'd joined the order of the Sisters of Divine Mercy and taken a vow of poverty, received only a few family mementoes. The will had been explicit in its bequests. Michael, it stated, had already received his inheritance while Nana was alive.
“My brother had no right to be so angry when the will was read,” Max said. “It was his own fault that things turned out the way they did. But Michael refused to see that. He was the oldest child. He'd always been Nana's favorite. He was brought up to believe he could do no wrong.”
“And he found out the hard way that wasn't true,” Peg replied. “That can't have been an easy pill to swallow.”