"Caprice De Luca's cocker spaniel bounded up the wide staircase beside her.
"Why do you think Ace wants to see us?" she asked Lady, her golden-colored, seven-month-old pup.
Lady gave a bark and Caprice stopped mid-staircase to smile and ear-ruffle her dog. Lady was a lower pack, stay-close dog who responded easily to praise, attention, and conversation. Caprice was about to engage in more conversation when—
Suddenly she heard Ace Richland's baritone call to her from his mansion's second floor hall. "We're in the secure room."
Ace was a rock star legend making a comeback. He'd bought this estate in Kismet, Pennsylvania, after Caprice had staged it to sell with a wild kingdom theme. He'd wanted a place to relax away from glitz, glamour, and glare to reconnect with his twelve-year-old daughter. Her mother enjoyed sole custody and Trista spent the odd weekend with him.
Caprice wondered who was with Ace. He'd said, "We're in the secure room." Was his daughter here this weekend? When Ace had phoned her, he hadn't told her why he wanted to meet with her. Maybe he had another room he wanted her to redecorate.
But certainly not the secure room, with its climate control and digitally-coded locking mechanism.
Ace had told her she could bring Lady, but she didn't know if he wanted her dog in that room. The previous owner had stored expensive art work in there. Upon Caprice's suggestion, Ace used the room for his vast collection of guitars.
When she reached the room with Lady, Caprice said, "Stay," giving her dog a hand motion for the command. At seven months old, Lady still had a lot of pup in her.
Lady whined a moment. She liked Ace and had probably already caught his scent.
Caprice pulled a treat from the little pouch belt she wore and rewarded Lady with it. Though praise usually did the trick, every now and then Caprice still liked to give the pup something extra.
"She can come in," Ace called. "All the guitars are hanging on racks, and she certainly can't hurt this rubber floor."
Caprice walked into the room, letting Lady wait a moment so she didn't receive confusing signals. Ace wasn't alone. A blond woman stood there, her shoulder length waved hair perfectly coifed, her jeweled necklace and earrings screaming lots-of-money-here. Her perfectly matched cranberry-colored sweater and slacks, evidently bought from a designer rack, shouted sophistication. Manola Blahnik shoes accentuated her long legs.
Although Caprice knew fashion, she indulged in her own fashion sense, mostly wearing vintage and retro. On this March day, with the wind blowing, she'd opted for her red bell bottoms, one of her favorite Beatle T-shirts in red and black, and a crocheted yellow vest. After all, this wasn't a professional visit, she didn't think. Ace was sort of a friend.
Now he gave her one of his wicked grins. "Let Lady come inside and I'll introduce you."
Caprice turned toward Lady, patted her hip, and said, "Come, girl."
Lady bounded toward her, wiggled at her feet for a few minutes, and then ran right over to Ace.
Immediately he crouched and petted the dog's head. "You're such a good girl. Just like Brindle."
Ace's daughter had taken another one of the pups in the litter that Caprice had delivered and named her Brindle.
The blond cleared her throat and Ace got to his feet. Caprice watched Lady for her opinion of Ace's guest.
Her dog stayed close to Ace with wary eyes on the blond.
Lady was a good judge of character, but Caprice should at least have a conversation with the woman before she sized her up too quickly.
"Caprice, meet Alanna Goodwin. Alanna, Caprice De Luca, home stager extraordinaire. After all, if it weren't for her staging, I never would have bought this place."
So this was Alanna Goodwin. Caprice had heard gossip about Ace and the Southern born-and-bred Alanna. Supposedly he'd met the widow at a black tie function in Harrisburg over the Christmas holidays and had been dating her ever since. Now that Caprice had a good look at her, she remembered this woman attending an at-home concert Ace had given for the drop of his new single last month.
Caprice extended her hand to shake Alanna's. Alanna gave her outfit a look, somewhat like the look her sister Bella often gave her when she criticized her fashion sense.
But then the Southern beauty smiled winningly. "Hello, Caprice, it's so good to meet you. Ace speaks highly of you."
"Well, good," Caprice said with a smile. "I speak highly of him."
Ace gave a chuckle. "As I told you, Caprice says her mind. But she's usually right on the mark with staging and decorating."
Caprice wondered what Ace was up to. Drumming up business for her?
"Do you need my professional services with something?" she asked Alanna.
"Ace insists you're the best." Alanna looked toward Ace adoringly. "Do you want to ask her or should I?"
Ace's boyish look and a twinkle in his eye told Caprice he wanted a favor.
As he moved closer to Alanna, Lady came to stand with Caprice.
He said, "Alanna's going to sell her Kismet house and move in with me. I'd like you to stage it to sell. You can fit her in, can't you?"
He gave Caprice a little wink, and she knew what that meant. He was playing the friend favor card. After all, he'd done a couple of favors for her that had included leading a teenager on the right track in life. Ace was a good guy under the razz-ma-tazz rock legend exterior, and she would help if she could.
She mentally reviewed her professional commitments. She hadn't intended to schedule a new client for another two months.
"Ace said you do your best work under pressure, although I don't know how he knows that," Alanna commented with a probing glance.
If she was honest with herself, and she usually was, Caprice had already sized up Alanna just as Lady had. She sensed there was an edge of steel in the Southern beauty, and she wondered if they'd clash or mesh on the best staging course to take if she accepted her as a client.
Alanna sweetly but cuttingly asked, "Have you been in Ace's guitar room before?"
Maybe Alanna just wanted to know if she was a threat. There had never been anything romantic between her and Ace.
Caprice explained, "I've been in here before when I was staging the house. I'm the one who suggested that he use it for his guitars."
"Caprice has been in my home more than most people," Ace added. "She redecorated Trista's room before she came to stay for the first weekend, and then redecorated it again when I got it all wrong."
"All wrong?" Alanna asked with a perfectly formed eyebrow quirking up.
"I wanted it in pink and ruffles, trying to keep Trista a little girl. She hated it. But she and Caprice put their heads together and came up with exactly what Trista liked. Caprice will do a good job for you, Alanna. I know she will."
The best course to take was to see Alanna's house as soon as possible. So much for having a free Sunday afternoon.
She asked Alanna, "How does tomorrow afternoon suit? I can take a look at your house and you can decide if you'd like me to stage it."
After Alanna gave Caprice a once over again, including Lady in the assessment, she nodded. "I'll pencil you in. But just so you know, I have a cat. You'll probably want to leave your dog at home."
A stiff March breeze whisked past Caprice's restored yellow Camaro on Sunday afternoon as she drove toward Alanna Goodwin's house a few miles outside of Kismet. Winter had been long and harsh this year. That sometimes happened in Pennsylvania. She'd spent many nights curled up on her sofa in front of a blazing fire, Lady on the floor beside her, her cat Sophia on the afghan on the back of the sofa as she worked on home staging designs. But today, the promise of spring was faintly in the air.
As she turned down one rural road after another, she appreciated the bucolic setting with its rolling hills, groves of maples, sweet gum and sycamores. She considered the older neighborhood where she lived in a nineteen-fifties Cape Cod that was just perfect for her and her animals. She was five minutes away from everything in Kismet, yet close enough to Harrisburg, York, D.C., and Baltimore to draw clients from there.
Her Camaro made a vroom as she took the last turn leading to Alanna's house. She drove her work van more than she used to when she had Lady along so her dog could be housed in her crate in the back. It was safer for her pup that way. Today she appreciated the responsiveness of her Camaro, and the exhilaration she felt when she drove it.
Lady was home alone this afternoon on another trial run. Her training was going well, and instead of penning her in the kitchen, Caprice had been giving her the run of the downstairs when she wasn't going to be away more than an hour or two. Lady and Sophia were buddies now. Toys that when batted about released food crunchies, also kept Lady busy and out of trouble.
Alanna Goodwin's house, White Pillars, was easy to spot. Caprice had Googled Alanna after meeting her. The widow's deceased husband Barton Goodwin, a self-made multimillionaire, had built the edifice for them twelve years ago when he'd moved them from Mississippi to Kismet. He'd died about a year ago. Apparently Alanna wasn't still in mourning and was ready to move on with her life.
Caprice tried not to be judgmental. She didn't like anybody judging her. Alanna and Ace? They just didn't seem to fit together quite right.
Alanna's home resembled a plantation mansion. Tall white pillars that had given the estate its name surrounded two sides of the house. Along the east side of the mansion stretched a screened-in veranda that Caprice imagined might also stretch along the back. As she parked in the driveway, pulled her patent-leather purse with her electronic tablet from the seat beside her and climbed out of her car, she stared up at the mansion. The entrance somehow managed to be both formidable and southerly inviting. She felt as if she was traveling through the old South and had come upon an historical showplace.
A multi-toned chime sounded when Caprice pressed the bell. Alanna herself opened the huge white door, smiled easily, and after a "hello" invited Caprice inside.
Today Caprice had dressed in loose-legged khaki slacks with a military-cut jacket reminiscent of one the Beatles wore at their landmark Shea Stadium concert. Her low navy patent pumps coordinated with her purse. As she stepped into the house, her straight, long, dark brown hair swished over her shoulder. She was ready for this meeting. She just hoped Alanna Goodwin was too.
"What do you want to do first?" Alanna asked.
"Let me have a look around. A theme is already presenting itself, but I want to make sure. I'll run it by you after I take a look at everything."
Right away, Caprice could see Alanna's furnishings were all Southern hospitality with traditional appeal. A crystal chandelier in the foyer, large prisms dangling from it, hung directly above a round, pedestal table with a three-foot-tall flower arrangement. Lilies projected a sweet scent that probably permeated the adjoining rooms. If Alanna had a cat, she shouldn't have lilies anywhere in the house. They were toxic to felines.
As Caprice moved forward, she could see early to mid-nineteenth century style, landscape paintings decorated the walls in the living room. She was pretty sure the mid-nineteenth century antiques were not reproductions. High-backed, floral upholstery-trimmed chairs in dark wood complemented two velvet settees.
As Caprice stepped into the dining room, admiring the dark wood table with its solid wood chairs, made unique by ornamental backs and arms, a beautiful white Persian cat suddenly appeared. It blinked at Caprice and meowed.
"Well, hello there! Just who are you?"
The cat gave another meow then walked slowly toward Caprice, ending up beside her and rubbing against her leg. Without hesitation, Caprice automatically dropped down and held out her hand.
The animal sniffed it and butted her head against Caprice's palm. Caprice laughed, touching the soft-as-cotton long hair. "You're a beauty."
"And she knows it," Alanna said. "That's Mirabelle. She's declawed. You don't have to worry about her scratching you."
Declawed—so she wouldn't mar any of Alanna's furniture, carpet, or heavy drapes. Caprice tried not to look too aghast. When trained correctly, a cat didn't have to damage anything. Apparently Alanna hadn't wanted to put the effort into teaching her to use a scratching post.
Mirabelle kept by Caprice's side as she rounded the long dining room table with its green eyelet runner and ornate stand in the center that held a display of fruit and nuts. In the kitchen, pie safes, glass-fronted cabinets and hutches provided additional storage to display decorative plates and large tureens.
As Caprice made a thorough tour of the rest of the house, Mirabelle followed her the whole way. Every once in a while, Caprice stooped and petted her, and the cat responded affectionately as if she was starved for the attention. That really wasn't fair. Caprice didn't know what kind of a pet owner Alanna was.
At one point Alanna said, "I can tuck her away so she doesn't bother you."
Caprice wasn't exactly sure what Alanna meant by that. But she already liked the cat who just seemed to want company. "She's fine with me."
However, pets aside, by the time she returned downstairs, she wasn't sure how Alanna and Ace were going to combine their very different styles. She didn't think Ace would particularly like heavy armoires and four-poster beds, pie safes, and ornate sculptures. Yet, maybe it was Alanna's Southern charm that had attracted Ace to her. Who knew?
In the living room with Alanna once more, Caprice sat on a settee, Alanna on a chair beside it.
Mirabelle stood at Caprice's feet and looked up at her lap.
But Alanna shook her finger at the cat. "Oh, no. You go over there and sit on your bed."
Caprice took one look at the ornate, shiny brass cat bed low to the floor, not placed in any direct sunlight, and wondered why any cat would like to sleep on it. Cats she knew preferred high places, windows, sunshine in as many forms as they could get it. But Mirabelle must have been used to listening to her owner because she went to the bed, folded her paws under her, and didn't look particularly happy.
Caprice told herself if she wanted Alanna as a client, even only as a favor to Ace, she really should bite her tongue and be pleasant.
So she tried to be. "I think it's easy to see what the theme for your staging should be—Antebellum Ecstasy. We'll play up all the best parts of Southern hospitality and emphasize the charm of living in a Southern mansion. You really should be able to keep most of your furnishings here, but one of the first rules of staging is to declutter."
"Declutter? I don't understand."
"Even though I plan staging themes, I have to make sure a prospective home buyer can imagine moving in their possessions too. Besides that, too many pieces of furniture take away from the beauty of each one. Many of my clients rent a storage shed or begin selling the furniture they don't intend to take with them when they move."
"I'm not exactly sure what I'd be moving into Ace's," Alanna said with a pensive look. "We haven't discussed that."
"You should make a list," Caprice advised her. "There are also advantages to incorporating a few more inviting colors rather than the deep browns and dark greens in most of these rooms."
"I'm not changing my color schemes."
Ah hah. The resistance she'd expected with this woman. "I'm not suggesting you change them. I'm suggesting you incorporate lighter colors with them."
She motioned to the draperies in the living room, the heavy tie-backs with the fringe. "For instance, just think about removing those draperies, hanging sheers, letting in more daylight. That will make the room more inviting."
"I am not taking down my draperies. They go with the house. They're part of its character."
Caprice swallowed a retort and reminded herself Alanna could be the love of Ace's life. "Mrs. Goodwin, would you like to sell the house quickly?"
Alanna looked trapped. "Yes, I want to sell the house quickly. That's the whole point of hiring you. I'm ready to make a home for me and Ace."
Caprice nodded, seeing that in her statement Alanna seemed sincere. "Why don't I make a list of suggestions of pieces of furniture you can remove. Instead of removing the draperies entirely, maybe we could take away the tiebacks and the dark semi-sheers and use something more see-through. I'll compromise with you, Mrs. Goodwin. But you have to remember, whatever I suggest will aid in selling the house. For example, I would never remove your Oriental carpet. But I might add a shawl over the back of one of the dark chairs to compliment the lighter blue in the rug. I might take away the dark velvet throw pillows and use a pale green that might match the sheers. Do you see the changes I'm talking about?"
Today Alanna was dressed in a pale gray cashmere sweater and deeper gray slacks. The pearls and earrings she wore were classically beautiful. This woman should be able to understand easily what Caprice wanted to do.
Alanna cast a glance around the first floor of her home. "It will be hard to leave this," she said. "But I'm ready."
Knowing Ace wasn't alone in this new romantic adventure and his daughter Trista would be along for the ride, Caprice couldn't help but ask, "Have you and Trista spent time together?"
At that question, Alanna's face took on a look almost the same as when she talked about her cat. Shuttered. "I'm not concerned about Trista. We've met, but she doesn't live with Ace. She's simply a now and then weekend daughter. That's a shame, of course, but that's just how it's going to be."
That seemed to be a line drawn in the sand for Alanna. However, as she finished with her conclusion, a shadow passed over her face. Alanna was about five years older than Caprice, maybe in her late thirties. It was hard to tell. From her background research, Caprice had learned Alanna had begun her professional life as a journalist in Mississippi. She'd met Barton Goodwin when she'd interviewed him for a story and they'd married a few months later. Apparently Barton had invented a new kind of scaffolding for construction sites, and his company had established enterprises worldwide. He'd moved them to Kismet to be closer to Washington, Baltimore, and New York. With his sudden heart attack, he'd left everything to Alanna, including his company.
From her research Caprice had surmised Alanna didn't seem to have much to do with the day to day running of the company, but she did sit on the board of directors. Maybe she wished she and Barton had had children. Often when women reached their late thirties, they thought about that more. However, Caprice was just guessing. She didn't know Alanna and doubted she'd get to know her. The widow seemed to be the type of woman who usually kept her guard up—a mint julep with more bite than sweetness.
Caprice took her electronic tablet from her purse. "If you don't mind, I'm going to go upstairs again and make that list for you of the pieces you can remove. That is if you're interested in hiring me."
"Ace would be disappointed if I didn't."
"I can e-mail you a proposal tonight."
After considering Caprice's services once more, Alanna nodded and gave Caprice a fake smile. "Make your list. I promise I'll consider each one seriously."
Caprice doubted that she would. But if they could compromise, they could make this house staging a real success.
When Caprice returned to the living room twenty minutes later, she found Alanna seated at a roll-top desk in the side parlor adjacent to the larger room. Mirabelle was no longer in sight and she wondered if Alanna had "tucked" her away.
This room possibly served as Alanna's office. She didn't mean to sneak up on Alanna, but the woman seemed focused on something at her desk. As Caprice looked over Alanna's shoulder, she spied a photo of a little girl who looked to be about six.
The charm bracelet Caprice wore almost every day now must have jingled as she shifted her tablet in her hand because Alanna started, then quickly slipped the photo back into the desk drawer. Caprice wondered who the child was.
That was none of her business.
She asked Alanna, "Do you have an e-mail address where I can send the proposal and my list of notes?"
Alanna rattled off her address. As she did, the white porcelain and gold decorative phone on her desk jangled. Alanna said, "Could you excuse me a minute? I'm expecting a call."
"I can see myself out."
Alanna shook her head. "There is something else I'd like to ask you."
As Caprice wondered what that could be, she moved away from the parlor into the living room to give Alanna privacy.
Still, she could hear bits of the conversation although Alanna kept her voice low.
"It worked. That's what matters," Alanna said. After she listened a few moments, she murmured, "It's not sabotage when it's for his own good. Keep me up to date."
Without even a goodbye, she set the handset on the receiver. Glancing at Caprice, Alanna manufactured a smile and joined her in the living room.
Wanting to get back home to her animals, thinking about taking Lady to the dog park before she put together Alanna's proposal, Caprice said, "You wanted to ask me something?"
Alanna studied her. "Are you and Ace good friends?"
Caprice picked up her purse from the settee where she'd left it and made eye contact with Alanna. "I don't know if we're good friends. We've talked to each other about some things that matter. I like his daughter a lot. Last summer, I found a stray dog who was pregnant. When she had her litter, Ace said Trista could have one of her pups. Trista and I've talked a lot about the dogs and training them, and Ace has been around for that too."
"I care about him deeply," Alanna said firmly, as if that was in doubt.
Caprice wasn't exactly sure what to say to that. If Ace was in love and had found a soul mate, she was all for it. But had Ace dated Alanna long enough to really know her?
"I wish you two all the best," Caprice responded sincerely.
But after Caprice left, after she climbed into her Camaro and headed for home, she wasn't sure what that "best" would be.
© Karen Rose Smith 2015