"It's a crime to cover that up!"
Caprice De Luca watched Eliza, with her symmetrically styled, sleek ash-blond hair, anchor her hands on her slim hips and pout.
As a home-stager, Caprice often fought battles with her clients about de-cluttering their homes to present them in the best form to the buying public. In this case, however, decluttering wasn't the issue...color was. Eliza Cornwall had decorated her mansion in countless shades of purple. The deep purples especially had made Caprice's eyes roll more than once.
Before she could respond with just the right amount of tact, Bob Preston ordered, "Stop complaining, Eliza."
The painter was balanced on an eight-foot ladder but that didn't stop his flow of words. "Caprice told me Baroque Bedazzle is your theme. Everything will show up better with this cream and pale green as its backdrop."
"It really will, Eliza," Caprice reassured her client. "You know we've discussed this color scheme backward and forward." Caprice thought about the hours she'd invested in this particular home-staging process.
"And upside down too, I imagine," Bob wisecracked with a wink for Caprice.
Caprice often used Bob and his painting crews. Bob himself wasn't averse to personally picking up a paintbrush and working hard when he was short-handed. He had light brown hair and myriad muscles, and was six feet tall. He could also charm the paint off the wall. Caprice knew about his lady-killer tendencies because her sister, Bella, had dated him seriously years ago. Today he wore a red, chest-hugging T-shirt and jeans that weren't any too loose.
The way Eliza was looking at him...the way Bob spoke to her with familiarity...Caprice suddenly wondered if Eliza and Bob had hooked up. Eliza was in her late thirties, so she might be six to eight years older than Bob, but in this day and age, that difference didn't much matter.
"What if the house doesn't sell?" Eliza asked with panic in her voice. "What if I have to stay in Kismet instead of moving to L.A.?"
"I can't imagine Christmas in L.A.,"Bob remarked laconically, as he expertly wielded the paint roller towards the ceiling. "Are you sure you want to trade Pennsylvania's seasons for sunny weather all year, not to mention mudslides, earthquakes and wild fires?"
When Caprice saw the corners of Bob's mouth twitch up, she knew he was teasing. Another reason to believe he and Eliza could have once been involved...or were maybe involved now.
"I won't miss the ice and snow, or Kismet's small town gossip mill. Not one little bit," Eliza muttered.
Caprice thought about Eliza's comment. Kismet, located outside of York, and a bit farther from Harrisburg, did have a grapevine that tangled through its neighborhoods with more accuracy than most residents gave it credit for. But the town also had community spirit. Neighbors helped neighbors. Eliza had moved here about five years ago and started Connect Xpress, a video and online dating service. If the worth of this mansion was an accurate indicator, she was a multi-millionaire.
Caprice had dealt with quite a few of those in her high-end staging business. Before she signed on with a client, they decided on a unique theme that would help the house stand out and sell more quickly than others in the same price range.
Bob, who had been born and bred in Kismet, must have agreed with Caprice's assessment of the town rather than Eliza's because again he quickly said, "Give it a rest, Lize. Kismet's been good to you."
Lize? Caprice had never heard the entrepreneur called by that nickname...or any other.
Eliza moved closer to Bob, ready to give as good as she got, when a reverberating gong traveled through the house. In the empty living room, the hollow sound echoed off the walls.
"No housekeeper," Eliza said, as if reminding herself. "I gave her the week off because of all the rearranging and painting." She started toward the front of the mansion.
Bob peered down at Caprice and lowered his voice. "She must be low on estrogen today."
Although Bob's attitude was friendly and conspiratorial, she wouldn't be drawn into a discussion of her client. Uncomfortable with Bob's comment, thinking about the best way to be diplomatic, Caprice brushed her straight, long, dark-brown hair over her shoulder. The seventies hairdo with bangs was a nod to the retro-fashion sense she appreciated the most.
As Bob eyed her fifties-style summer dress and white sandals, he considered her silence and shook his head. "You women know how to stick together. But that's a good thing, I guess." He grinned as he stretched to reach an unpainted area close to the ceiling.
Changing the topic of conversation, he asked, "Taken in any strays lately? That article the reporter did on you a few months back was pretty good. Of course the tie-up of the murder you solved at the end of May was even better. You sure do know how to get press for your business."
"What an awful thing to say!" Caprice erupted, tired of trying to be diplomatic. "I take in strays because they need a home, not to get publicity for my business. And as far as the murder— Roz was a good friend and I had to help her."
"Whoa," Bob said, holding up his roller to stop her. "I was just yanking your chain. Maybe Eliza's mood is rubbing off on you. Or maybe we're behind schedule and you're freaking out."
Yes, they were behind schedule, but she was not freaking out.
He went on, "Think about that doctor you're dating for a better state of mind. I spotted the two of you at the Koffee Klatch the other morning. You didn't need caffeine to get revved up over each other. That was obvious."
Caprice felt a flush creeping into her cheeks. She'd been "dating" Seth Randolph for almost two months, but they hadn't enjoyed many full-fledged dates. With his schedule at Kismet's urgent care center, a morning coffee or an evening ice cream was about all they'd managed after their initial miniature golfing date. She'd fallen for Seth quickly, and most of the time, the depth of their attraction and their rapport scared her. Especially after her track record with relationships.
Bob laughed. "When a girl blushes about a guy, she's hooked."
Caprice was about to tell Bob he was out of line today in several respects, but she was kept from doing so by the voices approaching the living room. Eliza's voice was the loudest, but she thought she recognized the other one—
Eliza and Caprice's sister Bella entered the living room, chattering. Caprice didn't think they were acquainted. After all, Eliza Cornwall and Bella Santini didn't move in the same circles.
Bella was saying, "I've heard about your matchmaking service and your move to L.A. I've always wondered how matchmakers pair people up."
Caprice took a deep breath. Was Bella wondering about matchmaking because her marriage was in trouble?
"I have a sophisticated computer program that does the initial pair-ups," Eliza explained. "But I also use my instincts with the video footage we shoot during our first interview."
"They must be great instincts if you're going to open a Connect Xpress in L.A. too. How exciting that must be. And moving to California— I've always wanted to take a vacation there."
"You should," Eliza encouraged her.
"With children and a budget, that's not in the cards right now." Bella's hand went to her stomach and Caprice knew her sister was thinking about the child she carried. She wasn't showing yet at three and a half months. But she was looking tired and a bit frazzled. In jeans and a wrinkled blouse with her black curly hair tied back, Bella wasn't her usual well-put-together self.
"Hey, Bella," Bob called from his ladder, laid his roller on the tray, then quickly hopped down. "Long time, no see. You're even prettier than you were in high school. How have you been?"
Eliza glanced from Bob to Bella, looking perplexed and maybe a bit...annoyed? Caprice was perplexed herself. Why was Bella here? And why was she blushing as if she were back in high school and she and Bob were dating again?
Although Bella and Bob had split up because he'd been unfaithful, the animosity had been laid to rest years ago. The reason was simple—Bella had found Joe Santini, and they'd made a life. If Bella bumped into Bob at Grocery Fresh or at the mall, ignoring him had seemed foolish.
Bella gave Bob a first-class smile. "Busy with two kids."
He gave her another once-over. "You and I will have to talk. Maybe we can have coffee sometime. What do you think?"
She only hesitated a few seconds. "I'd like that...a lot."
Bob's smile was rakish as he asked, "Did you come to get decorating tips from your sister?"
"No, just a sister-to-sister consultation. Can you give me a few minutes, Caprice? I just need to talk to you. When I phoned Mom, she said you'd be here this afternoon."
Although Bella had gained color in her cheeks when Bob had complimented her, she'd looked pale when she'd walked in and there were smudgy blue circles under her eyes.
Not sleeping? Caprice knew there was lots of tension between her sister and her husband, Joe, because of her pregnancy.
Eliza picked up the clipboard she'd left on one of the tarp-covered tables. "I have to go upstairs and work on the list for the auction people. Caprice is ruthless when she declutters, but I probably can't use any of it when I move to the West Coast anyway." With a fluttering wave, she headed for the foyer and the stairs.
Crossing to his ladder, Bob said to Bella, "I'll give you a call soon and we'll go for that coffee."
Bella showing up like this was odd, and Caprice really was worried. She said to Bob, "Excuse us," took Bella's arm and pulled her out of the painter's earshot.
She and Bella didn't always have the most harmonious relationship. Bella thought Caprice's penchant for taking in strays was foolish and that her fashion sense was a horror. Caprice, who liked surprises and knew how to roll with the punches, believed Bella was too rigid.
"Has something happened to Mom or Dad, Joe or the kids?"
"No, nothing like that."
"Then what's wrong? You look—" Caprice didn't quite have the word for it. Ruffled? Unnerved? Anxious? She settled for, "You look upset. And what was that little flirty thing with Bob? What are you doing?"
"I'm just going to have coffee with an old friend. That's not a crime."
No, it wasn't. Still, Bob was an old flame, and right now, she could imagine where a cup of coffee could lead when there were problems between Bella and her husband.
After a moment of silence, Bella sighed. "I need to talk to you about Joe. I don't know what to do."
"Where are the kids?" On a Thursday afternoon, Timmy should be at summer camp. But at four, Megan...
"Megan's with my neighbor. Nellie's really good with her and in an emergency, she'll watch either or both of them for me."
"So this is an emergency?"
"It feels like it. I can't eat. I can't sleep. I'm so tired all the time."
"Did you say you talked to Mom?"
"Not about any of this. My marriage is too hard to discuss with her. With her and Dad married thirty-seven years and perfectly happy, I don't think she'd understand."
"Not perfectly happy. No marriage is perfectly happy. You know they argue now and then."
"Nothing like this," Bella concluded dejectedly.
Maybe not, Caprice thought. Their mom was a high school teacher, their dad a mason. Money had been tight with four kids and a house that needed constant repair. But most of the time Fran and Nick De Luca had agreed about their kids and, even more important, about family issues.
"So what's going on with Joe now?" He and Bella had had a huge blow-up at their mom's surprise birthday party six weeks ago. That day he'd found out Bella was pregnant. That day he'd also discovered his wife had told her sisters about it before she'd told him.
"He's hardly talking to me. He spends time fooling around with the car, puttering in the garage— He's also been away a lot at night. He comes home smelling like smoke. When I ask him about it, he says he's been out with the guys. I don't know what that means."
"Have you talked more about your pregnancy?"
"I talk, but he doesn't listen. I can tell. He just keeps saying we can't afford another kid. I just keep saying each child is a precious gift. He knows that. I can see it in his eyes when he looks at Megan and Timmy or plays with them. With our Catholic background, he knows there's no way I'd ever consider having an—" She stopped abruptly.
Bella couldn't even bring herself to say the word.
"I don't know what to tell you, Bee." In serious discussions, Caprice always fell back on her childhood nickname for Bella, who was the youngest. Her sister's name, Isabella, had been quickly shortened to Bella by everybody. But when they were little, Caprice's nickname for her seemed to give them an added closeness.
With Bella looking miserable, Caprice could only try to imagine how she felt. She and Joe had been married more than eight years and for the most part, they'd been happy. At least Caprice and her family had thought that was true. Now it seemed as if her sister's marriage was falling apart.
"Is there anyone who Joe might listen to? What if you sat down with Mom and Dad to discuss all of it?"
"That won't work. Joe would be defensive from the start. It's not just the fact I'm pregnant. He thinks I got pregnant on purpose. I mean, we got married because I was pregnant and that was both our faults. We should have known better. He's always said we were going to get married anyway. But maybe since our wedding, there's always been a small part of me that doubted how he felt. And now— I don't know if he believes the antibiotic I was taking counteracted the birth control. I really think he believes I did this on purpose."
"He knew you were taking an antibiotic, didn't he? Did you talk about the consequences of having sex while you were on it?"
Bella blushed. "One night the kids were both at sleepovers and it just happened. I guess neither of us thought I'd be in the small percentage of women who would get pregnant." She paused and collected herself. "So...we're not talking. He doesn't want to find solutions. He just wants to be mad. Most of all, I think he's angriest because you and Nikki knew I was pregnant before he did."
"Have you considered going to counseling? Maybe a stranger to talk to would be best."
"We can't afford that. Our insurance doesn't cover it. I checked."
"You might have to afford it if your marriage is at stake. I thought you told Nikki and me you have rainy-day money stashed away that you earned making kids' Halloween costumes."
"But Joe doesn't know about that. The fact that I have it stuffed in a shoe in the closet would make him blow another gasket."
If Bella wasn't going to listen to any of the advice she offered... "Why did you come to me today?"
Looking even more dejected, Bella answered, "Because I didn't know what else to do."
After taking a huge breath, Caprice blew it out. "All right. So here's what I suggest. Find a marriage counselor. You need a mediator. Use rainy-day money. I can help you, too, but I know Joe wouldn't like that any more than the cash you've kept in that shoe."
Suddenly Juan Hidalgo came thumping down the steps, Eliza close behind him. Caprice's right-hand man had broken his ankle. Now it was encased in an unwieldy boot that looked like something an astronaut would wear on the moon. For six weeks while his broken ankle had begun healing, she'd used temporary help. But Juan managed most of the crews for her, supervised furniture arrangement from her floor plans, and was generally her go-to guy.
Now, however, she glared at him. That look made him slow his progress down the stairs. After all, he was also in physical therapy for that ankle.
"I'm okay," he assured her in response to the glare. Before she could scold him, he continued, "We're ready to move furniture from the second floor to the storage unit. I'm meeting the movers out front." Caprice was about to remind him to be careful again, but he was out the front door before she could. He could move faster on that boot than most people could without one.
Not slowing down herself, Eliza passed by her and Bella and returned to the living room. Caprice knew Bob would shortly be moving his tarps and gear to another room—another glaringly-purple, soon-to-be-muted to cream room.
"I feel like I'm in the middle of a cyclone," Bella muttered.
"You're in the middle of a house make-over. I guess you've never been on site while I'm working before."
"I guess not. Did Roz tell you I'm going to help get her store up and running?"
Caprice had helped keep her friend, Roz Winslow, from being charged in her husband's murder back in May. Afterward, wanting to change her life and needing a purpose, Roz had decided to open a fashion boutique in Kismet.
"Is Mom going to babysit Megan and Timmy?"
"Yes, she is. And when she can't, Nellie can. Roz said it will take a few months to get the store up and running, so most of my help will be behind the scenes. But she feels with my degree in fashion, I was the logical choice."
"You have told Joe about this, right?"
"Yes. And he growled something about not wanting favors from your friends. I got really mad and told him I married him instead of pursuing a career in fashion, so I'm well-qualified to help Roz. He kept quiet after that."
Bella and Joe seemed to be digging their marriage into a deeper and deeper hole. If they didn't get help soon, there wouldn't be anything left to salvage.
The huge front door of the mansion burst open. Juan and two burly men bustled in. In their tank tops and jeans, with their bulging muscles, they looked totally out of place in the marble-floored foyer with its two-story ceiling reaching into the second floor gallery at the front of the house.
"I'd better go," Bella said as Juan directed the men up the stairs. "I feel like I'm in the way."
Caprice wasn't going to admit that Bella was in the way. She would never do that. Family was everything to the De Lucas, even when they disagreed, even when they squabbled, even when they saw each other taking the wrong road.
"I don't know what to do to help you, Bella, but you can come to me anytime. You know that."
Bella gave Caprice an odd look, as if maybe she didn't know that, as if maybe Caprice's opinion mattered more than Caprice had ever imagined.
She gave Bella a hug and held on tight, the way sisters should. When she leaned away, she saw tears in her sister's eyes. Bella didn't cry easily, and Caprice suspected pregnancy hormones were at work.
"Are you and Joe coming to dinner at Mom's on Sunday?" No one missed dinner at their parents', not unless blood and a sudden accident were involved.
"Joe doesn't want to come."
"Then you and the kids come."
"He's never missed a dinner with Mom and Dad, not since before we were married," Bella said sadly.
"Try to convince him to come, Bella. Try to put everything aside for one day at least. Give yourself a break."
"I don't want everybody to gang up on him."
"We won't. I promise. Tell him that. Do you want me to talk to him?"
"Oh, no. I think he's still embarrassed about blowing up at you at Mom's birthday party."
She doubted that. Joe had just said what he was thinking—that he wanted to come first with Bella rather than her family always coming first. What a mess.
"Come on Sunday," Caprice said again. "Seth will be there." She knew her sisters were still curious about the handsome doctor, and dinner with their parents would give them the opportunity to get to know him better.
"Are you serious about him?" Bella asked.
"Trying not to be."
Bella shook her head. "I sure don't have any advice about your love life right now."
That one statement proved Bella wasn't really herself. She was always ready to give Caprice advice, and anyone else who would listen, too.
After she walked Bella to the door, watched her go down the steps and climb into her car that was parked in the circular drive, Caprice returned inside. She heard men's voices upstairs and lots of noise. Movers at work.
She headed back to the living room, needing to set up a schedule with Eliza. The real estate agent had mentioned wanting to shoot video and still pictures by the beginning of next week. Everything had to be painted, redesigned and in place by then.
In the doorway to the living room, Caprice stopped cold because she heard Eliza say—
"You have no right to ask Bella out on a date."
How awkward was this? But Eliza and Bob obviously didn't know she was there.
"What I do now is none of your damn business," Bob retorted with what sounded like menace.
Eliza must have heard menace, too, because she took a step back and looked as if she might burst into tears. Was that an act? Or did this multi-millionaire entrepreneur really have feelings for this painter? Or...
Was she afraid of him?
© Karen Rose Smith 2014