Caprice De Luca caught sight of the guest who stepped over the threshold. She braced for trouble.
Spinning on her kitten-heels, her long brown hair flowing over her shoulder, she rushed to the living room of the four-thousand square foot, stone and stucco house. She'd staged it with the theme of French Country Flair. Bringing the rustic country flavor from the outside in, she'd used the colors of lavender and green, rust and yellow, mixing them for inviting warmth. Carved curved legs on the furniture, upholstered in toile with its pastoral scene, mixed with the gray distressed wood side tables.
Prospective buyers who entered should have been screened by real estate agents. So how had Drew Pierson ended up standing in the foyer of today's open house?
The chef was her sister Nikki's arch enemy. Ever since he'd opened Portable Edibles, a catering company that competed with Nikki's Catered Capers, the two of them had been in a battle to make their businesses succeed.
Just why was he here?
Caprice hurried to the dining room with its almost wall- length whitewashed wood glass-doored hutch, passed the table with its pale blue tablecloth and white gently scalloped stoneware dinnerware, and headed for the smells emanating from the grand kitchen. She hardly noticed the still-life paintings of flowers that she'd arranged on the walls.
The floor of the kitchen mimicked rustic brick, reflecting the colors in the floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Blue and rust plaid cushions graced the bay-windowed breakfast nook as well as the plate glass window over the sink. Two-toned cupboards, white on top, dark cherry on the bottom, along with the copper pots hanging over the granite island, made the space inviting for cooking or family-centered activities.
Nikki and her servers had almost finished readying the chafing dishes and serving platters in the state-of-the-art kitchen. The combination of Nikki's culinary skills and Caprice's staging talent would pull in prospective buyers. More often than not, they sold houses quickly because of their efforts, and the real estate agent on board made a hefty profit. The luxury broker today was Denise Langford, and Caprice wondered if Drew Pierson knew her and that's how he'd added his name to her list.
While one server poured vin d'orange into crystal glasses, another took a cheese soufflé from the double oven. Nikki's assistant was stirring soupe au pistou, a thick vegetable soup with vermicelli while a platter of pan bagnat hors d'oeuvres, which were basically tuna, tomato, green pepper, olive, and sliced hard boiled egg sandwiches stood beside her.
Since Caprice had gone over the menu carefully with Nikki, she knew other chafing dishes held blanquette de veau—veal in white sauce with carrots, leeks, onions, and cloves as well as poulet basquaise which was pan-fried chicken dipped in pepper sauce. Nikki herself was stirring the boeuf bourguignon. The braised beef cooked in red wine with carrots and potatoes and garnished with bacon smelled wonderful.
Nikki was so intent on stirring the dish in front of her that she didn't see Caprice approach. Caprice was about to warn her that Drew Pierson had arrived when he appeared beside Caprice, looking over the offerings of food for the prospective house buyers.
"I thought I'd stop by and see what my competition was offering today," he said smoothly.
At the sound of Drew's voice, Nikki's head snapped up, her eyes widened, and she frowned.
"You're thinking of buying a French country bungalow?" Caprice asked, giving her sister time to compose herself.
"I told Denise Langford I wouldn't mind having a look at this place."
This "place" was definitely out of Drew's budget since he was a fledgling business owner. Portable Edibles couldn't be making that much money yet.
Drew ignored Caprice and stared down at the boeuf bourguignon, sniffed it, then smiled at Nikki. "Anyone can make boeuf bourguignon, but I see you added bacon. Nice touch."
"Don't think I'm going to serve you any of my food," Nikki responded, her tone kept in tight restraint. "If it were up to me, I'd have you removed from the property."
Drew clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Your envy is showing. I guess you heard I'll be catering the fundraising high brow dinner at the Country Squire Golf and Recreation Club. My bid came in lower than yours."
Caprice had to wonder about that conclusion. Nikki's bids were more than competitive. It was quite possible that someone on the selection committee for the dinner had favored Drew. She could read her sister well, and she saw that Nikki was thinking the same thing.
"Just because you won that job doesn't mean your food will win the taste test," Nikki offered. "I have a growing client base. Do you? I have repeat customers. Do you?"
"Your social media following is pitiful," he responded with bitterness, and Caprice wondered where that bitterness was coming from. What had Nikki ever done to Drew? They'd actually worked well together when she'd first hired him to assist her in a few catering jobs. It was after she'd turned him down as a partner that their relationship had fallen apart.
"I believe in growing my business one happy customer at a time," Nikki returned. "My followings will grow. The way ten thousand followers suddenly flowed into your Twitter stream, I suspect you bought them. How loyal do you think they're going to be?"
Everyone in the vicinity was listening and watching now, and Caprice knew the sparring match between Nikki and Drew would only escalate.
Caprice leaned a little closer to him. "We'll serve you if you want so you can sample Nikki's food to see exactly how delicious it is. But I don't think you want a scene here any more than she does. That could be bad for business, and business is what you're all about, isn't it?"
She didn't know what had made her throw that question in. But when she saw the look on Drew's face, she understood this wasn't just about business. There was something personal underlying his rancor for Nikki. Still, she must have gotten through to him.
He took a step back away from the food and her sister. "Good luck, Nikki. You're going to need it because I'm going to cut your business off at the knees."
After that shot, he turned and headed for the front door.
Everyone around Nikki went back to what they'd been doing and pretended they hadn't heard anything. But Nikki knew better and she looked upset.
"I knew you were two were competing, but I didn't realize he nursed a vendetta against you. What gives?" Caprice asked.
Nikki lowered her voice. "It's more than professional. You're right. He made a pass at me before I turned him down as a partner. I had turned him down as a love interest too. I think that rejection really bothered him. Rejected by me both ways, he decided to try to wipe out my business. But he can't. My food's better than his. He's an efficient cook and he'll do fine at catering, but I don't think he has the creative spark to make his dishes really special. I'm determined to show him up next weekend."
"What's next weekend?" Caprice asked, thinking about her schedule.
"It's the wedding expo. Area bakeries, caterers, dress shops, and flower stores are going to be showing their wares. I'll have sample menus for couples planning their wedding, and food they can taste. Drew will too. But mine's going to be better."
Of course, it was. Nikki could rise to any challenge. Couldn't she?
Caprice sat with her sister Bella on a bench in the front yard of their childhood home Sunday evening, eating a slice of her mom's birthday cake. The weather on this end-of-May day was absolutely balmy. Dusk was just shadowing the lawn.
"You outdid yourself with the coconut cake this time, and the fluffy icing is wonderful. I don't think I have your recipe. You're going to have to email it to me."
"I know coconut cake is Mom's favorite and she doesn't make it much for herself because Dad would rather have chocolate. Just like Joe and the kids. No palate at all."
Caprice laughed. Her sister Bella was nothing but blunt. With her curly black hair, sparkling brown eyes, and heart-shaped face, she'd always been a beauty. She was two years younger than Caprice, but usually felt she knew best and never hesitated to give advice. She was the married sibling, and with a husband, three kids, a part-time job, and a burgeoning on-line business making costumes and christening outfits for kids, she was one busy lady.
Bella nudged Caprice's arm. "Look at Mom with Benny."
Their mom sat on a lawn chair under a red maple, holding Bella's five-month-old son, Benny. Caprice could see he was almost asleep.
"Joe and I decided to let her babysit Benny so I could work more hours this summer. We'll see how it goes. I don't want it to be too much for Mom, and she won't accept payment. So I got her a discount at All About You."
All About You was a dress shop that Caprice's best friend, Roz Winslow, owned. With her degree in fashion design, Bella worked there part-time and it was a good fit. Roz was dating Caprice's brother Vince, and Caprice didn't see either of them in the front yard. That didn't surprise her. They might have snuck around back and were making out. Never too old for stealing a few kisses.
Her gaze targeted Grant Weatherford, who was tossing a soccer ball to Megan and Timmy. Her heart did a little flip-flop when he caught her eye too and smiled in that way he had of making her feel special. They'd been dating for six weeks and, in spite of herself, she was dreaming about a future with him.
Suddenly Caprice's cocker spaniel Lady came running up to her, wound around her leg and then settled on her foot. Patches, Grant's cocker, not golden like Lady but with patches of brown and white, scampered over too, followed by Caprice's Uncle Dom. Her uncle had experienced a divorce and a financial downturn and was living with her parents temporarily until he got back on his feet. He and her family had had their differences but he seemed to be at peace with them now, especially with Nana, her paternal grandmother, who was sitting on the porch in the shade talking to Nikki and watching them all.
Her Uncle Dom grinned down at her. "A man doesn't need to go to a gym when he has dogs to chase."
Patches sniffed at Bella's white sneaker. She moved her foot and then rose to her feet. "I'll let you enjoy your hairy companions."
Bella tolerated animals, but she wasn't a lover of them like Caprice, Grant, and her uncle.
Uncle Dom lowered himself onto the bench, stooping down to rub Patches' ear. She knew the dog liked to be scratched there, and apparently her uncle had discovered that too.
"How's the job hunt?" she asked him.
He grimaced. "I have two interviews lined up, one with a bank and another with an insurance agency. I never thought I'd be an insurance salesman, but it's something people need."
Her uncle had worked for a large financial agency that had collapsed with the economic downturn. He was having trouble finding a job in that sector. Even if he could, she wasn't sure he was enthusiastic about it. He definitely wasn't enthusiastic about being an insurance salesman.
"Tell me something, Uncle Dom. What do you love to do? What have you always wanted to do?" She was a big believer in putting your heart in your work for it to be a success. Bella was doing that with her on-line costume-making business and orders were pouring in. Caprice had done that when she'd turned from interior decorating to house staging for high end clients. She'd needed to turn something she loved into a business that would work in the present economy. Nikki invested her heart in her cooking. Her mom threw her heart into her teaching. Her dad, a mason, had put his life into building structures he could be proud of. She knew Vince and Grant cared about their clients in their law partnership. Yep, to be a success, you had to do what you loved to do.
Her uncle thought about her question for a moment, then motioned to Patches and Lady. "I've always wanted to tend to animals. Being around Lady and your cats has brought that home again. But I'm a little old to be a veterinarian."
"You're never too old if that's what you want to do. But you could tend to animals in another way."
"And that is?" he asked with a raised brow.
"Have you ever thought about being a pet sitter? I use one at times, and I have clients who would like to have their pets taken care of in their homes. They can't find someone to do it. To really make it a business, you'd have to be bonded and insured. But that's possible, isn't it?"
Her uncle studied the dogs again, patted Patches at his feet, and then nodded. "I never thought about pet sitting. But, you know? I think I'd like it."
"I can give you the name of the pet sitter I use who works in York, if you'd like to interview her. That might give you an idea of whether you want to do it or not. Do you have your phone on you? I can give you her number."
After her uncle took out his phone and entered the number, Grant approached them. He nodded to her uncle. "Thanks for giving the dogs a run."
"Anytime," her uncle responded, rising to his feet. He gave Caprice's arm a squeeze. "Thanks for your idea. I'll let you know what I decide."
Once her uncle had moved off and joined her dad and Bella's husband Joe in conversation, Grant asked, "Are you ready to leave? We could go back to your place for a while."
There was a look in his eyes that told her he wanted to be someplace private with her. Maybe they'd have a make-out session of their own.
An hour later, Caprice brought tall glasses of iced tea into her living room. Grant stood at the floor-to-ceiling, turquoise-carpeted cat tree. As he petted her white Persian named Mirabelle who was on one shelf, he studied Sophia, her long-haired Calico, who was on the top shelf.
He said to Sophia, "I'm glad to see you two are getting along now." He glanced at Caprice. "Do they still squabble?"
"Now and then. Mostly if Mirabelle wants to be friendly and Sophia doesn't want to be bothered. But considering Mirabelle's only been here two months, they're doing well."
She nodded to Lady and Patches who were chewing on toys near the sofa. "Mirabelle still stays out of Lady's way, but she doesn't seem scared of her anymore. And look at her. She doesn't even mind Patches being here."
Grant came to join Caprice on the sofa. It was striped in purple and lime and fuchsia to complement the sixties decor, including a lava lamp, in the room.
As he sat beside her—very close beside her—she took a sip of tea and then placed the sweating glass on the mosaic-topped coffee table. She hadn't turned the air on because the night breeze floated in the open windows.
"Dinner at your mom and dad's is always like a family reunion," he mused.
"That's why we do it once a month, whether there's a special occasion or not. Mom's birthday was just really an excuse to go all out—Nana's ravioli, Nikki's lasagna, Bella's green bean casserole and cake, my bread."
"And the weather was perfect for the kids to play outside afterward."
Kids were sometimes a sore subject with Grant, though he tried not to let it show. He'd had a tragedy in his past. He'd had a daughter who had drowned and his marriage had broken up because of it. When he'd moved to Kismet to join her brother's law practice—she and her family had gotten to know him when he'd been her brother's college roommate—he'd started a new life. Yet he really hadn't been ready to move on. It had only been in the past few months Caprice felt he was putting the past behind him...or not regretting it as much.
"Megan and Timmy can be a handful," she agreed. "It's great when they can be outdoors to release some of that energy. Just wait until Benny joins in the fray."
Apparently wanting to leave the subject of children, Grant changed the direction of their conversation. "I had a client who stopped in at your last open house."
"Really? What did she think?"
"She liked the way the house was staged. I think she picked up one of your cards. She liked the food too, but—"
"But?" Caprice was surprised there was any question about Nikki's food.
"Apparently she overheard an argument between Nikki and some guy."
Caprice groaned. "That wasn't some guy. That was Drew Pierson. I think he came by just to goad Nikki. Thank goodness she didn't take him on as a partner. That could have been disastrous."
"This was a heated argument?"
"Heated enough. Fortunately not too many guests were there yet. Nikki said Drew made a pass at her when they were working together. I have a feeling it was more than just a pass. She didn't tell me the details, but I think it shook her up enough and that's why she didn't even consider taking him on as a partner."
"Why would he do that if he wanted to work with her?"
"Maybe he thought their working relationship could have benefits. Maybe it was his way of thinking he could solidify the deal."
Grant set down his glass of iced tea next to hers. Then he curved his arm around her shoulders. "A kiss or a relationship should have nothing to do with a deal."
Caprice gazed up at him, totally lost in his gray eyes, and he seemed lost in her dark brown ones. "I absolutely agree."
For an instant, she thought he was going to kiss her but instead he asked, "How would you like to go with me to a concert in the park this week? We could spread out a blanket, take some snacks...and the dogs."
"Who might want to eat the snacks," she joked.
Grant smiled. "We'll take a few treats for them too. What do you say?"
"I say it's a terrific idea."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth when Grant bent his head and kissed her. The living room became a psychedelic swirl and she knew she felt something good and true and lasting for him. She just hoped he felt the same.
Caprice’s childhood home was a haven for her. That’s why she visited it often. Its Mediterranean-style exterior didn’t fit its Pennsylvania surroundings. When her parents had purchased it, it had been a real fixer-upper. They'd been "fixing up" for years. There was always something to repair. But with her dad’s masonry and carpentry talents and the friends he worked with helping him, he'd kept up improvements year by year. A few years back when Nana had sold her house, her parents had built on an addition so she could live with them but still be independent.
With Lady on her leash beside her, Caprice went around to her Nana’s side of the house, mounted the steps and knocked. Nana was an early riser and she might have turned on her morning TV programs. Caprice hoped she could hear her knock.
However, Nana immediately came to the door in yellow knit sportswear pants and a matching top. Her gray hair was fixed in the usual bun at her nape and her golden brown eyes were alight with morning energy.
"Did I know you were coming?" Nana asked with a fond smile and a pat for Lady.
Caprice gave Nana a hug, then unhooked Lady’s leash. "No, you didn’t. But we didn’t have much of a chance to talk on Sunday and I wanted to catch up."
Nana motioned her inside. "I’m just having my morning cup of tea. You can join me."
As soon as they stepped inside Nana’s small living room, Valentine came scampering from the bedroom. Caprice had found the gray tabby kitten in her yard one cold February night. Nana had decided she needed a pet and bonds had formed quickly. Now, at five months, Valentine was becoming lankier and longer. She danced up to Lady who took a sniff, then they both made a beeline for the kitchen.
"They want a mid-morning snack too," Caprice translated with a laugh.
"I have fresh-made biscotti for us, Greenie treats for Valentine, and a Perky Paws peanut butter cookie for Lady."
Fifteen minutes later as the animals chased and played in the living room, Nana served Caprice tea, the TV sounding in the background.
"What are you watching?" Caprice asked, unfamiliar with morning TV. Morning was her best work time, either meeting clients, making phone calls or running errands to find furniture for her next house staging.
"Mornings With Mavis," Nana responded. "It's that new local, morning talk-show. I learn about all kinds of businesses in the area, local charities, events that are coming up. It's very informative."
Caprice glanced at the TV as she pulled a Nana-baked biscotti from the canister that her grandmother had brought to the table. Then she took a second look at the TV, realizing what she'd seen. "That's Drew Pierson!"
"Drew who?" Nana asked.
"Drew Pierson, the caterer who's competing against Nikki. Can we turn it up?"
They both moved into the living room and Nana picked up the remote, increasing the volume. Drew was sitting in one of the interview chairs, looking all dapper and casual, while another gentleman in a suit and tie sat next to him. Mavis—at least Caprice guessed it was Mavis—with flaming red hair and her broad lipstick smile sat across from them. She was saying, "Your chain of restaurants, Rack-O-Ribs, is well-known up and down the east coast, Mr. Devlin. And we're so glad you opened a restaurant in Kismet not so long ago. Tell me how you came to decide that Chef Drew's blackberry barbeque sauce would be used in your whole chain."
"You're kidding!" Caprice exclaimed. "He sold barbeque sauce?"
"Maybe he'll be rich now and stop competing with Nikki," Nana observed.
"I don't know about rich. But if he sold the recipe, that could be quite profitable."
"I tasted it," Mr. Devlin said. "As soon as I did, I knew I wanted it."
"The barbeque sauce is only the beginning," Drew informed Mavis. "My catering service, Portable Edibles, is going to specialize in original recipes—main dishes, pies, and cakes. If you want a sampling, come out to the Kismet wedding expo on Saturday. I'll be introducing a chocolate walnut groom's cake. I've been told the recipe is to get married for!" He laughed as if he'd made an exceptional joke.
As the camera zoomed in on Mavis, Caprice realized the show must be about short interviews. Mavis said, "We'll put up information about the wedding expo on our web site. Viewers, make sure you check it out. If you're in the area, stop by the wedding expo on Saturday."
The segment over, the program went to commercial and Nana turned down the sound. "Do you need to tell Nikki about this?" Nana asked.
"I certainly do." Caprice was already reaching for the phone in the pocket of her turquoise bellbottom slacks—a staple in her vintage wardrobe.
"You know," Nana said softly, "Drew's grandmother, Rowena Pierson, makes a wonderful chocolate walnut cake...with maple icing, if I remember correctly."
Caprice forgot the call to Nikki for the moment. "Do you know his grandmother well?"
Nana frowned. "Not well. But she attends St. Francis of Assisi church. Has for years. She has a reputation for being a wonderful cook. But she does have arthritis and some sight problems. She doesn't cook as much as she used to. The thing is, I can't imagine her giving anyone her recipes. She always says she has them hidden where no one can find them."
Either Drew's grandmother had become generous with her recipes and given them to Drew, or else...
Could Drew have found those recipes and stolen them?
© Karen Rose Smith 2015