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Book Three

Gilt by Association

Gilt By Association


Chapter One

If her sister could run away, she probably would!

At least that's what Caprice De Luca thought after glancing at the expression on Bella's face, as well as the total disarray in Bella and Joe Santini's home.

This kind of chaos probably wasn't unusual for a mom with a three-week-old baby because everything changed when a baby entered a house. A baby...or a pup.

Caprice patted her hip to bring her dog, Lady, to her side. But Lady's head swung back and forth between Caprice and the newborn infant in Bella's arms who began to wail again.

Caprice wished she had more time to stay and help her sister, but shortly she was due at an appointment with a client. During February in Kismet, Pennsylvania, houses sold slowly. On the other hand, if a house hunter was looking at this time of year, the prospective buyer was usually serious. When Louise Downing, her mom's best friend, hired Caprice to stage her house, Caprice was more than ready with a Valentine's Day idea. An open house in conjunction with the popular holiday would be different than anything she'd done before. Louise's home already was all about hearts and flowers so that would be the underlying home-staging theme.

All at once, Bella's son Timmy yelled at his sister Megan, "You don't know how to play hide and seek." At eight, he was an expert.

Although Megan was only six, she still knew the rules. "You didn't count. You cheated."

Their squabbling was born out of restlessness and change. The let-down after the holidays had segued into welcoming their new brother into their home. Caprice supposed that they'd expected a new-born baby to be more fun. Since their mom had to give most of her attention to little Benedict, they were antsy and looking for trouble. That's where Aunt Caprice had come in. But she wasn't sure she'd done a very good job this Saturday afternoon. Bella was sleep-deprived and cranky, even though she loved her baby to bits. Trying to help out, Caprice had decided to keep them all company, do a little cooking and laundry.

Suddenly, the front door to the modest ranch-style house opened. Cold winter wind blew in with Bella's husband who'd been shoveling melting slush from the driveway so it wouldn't freeze. He looked as if he wanted to turn around and return to shoveling when Benny wailed again.

Suddenly Megan squeaked, "Oh, no," just as Lady squatted under the table and...

She'd obviously been trying to tell them she needed to go out and no one had listened.

Caprice sighed. No, babies and pups weren't that different sometimes.

She rushed over to Lady. "Eh-eh," she said in a non-threatening but even tone. Then she patted her hip, said, "Come," and headed for the door.

Joe called from the middle of the living room as he unzipped his coat. "She's not going to want to go out there any more than you will. There's snow in the air again."

"She knows we have to make this quick. I'll clean up when we're done," she assured him, grabbing her 60's style pea coat from a kitchen chair along with a paper towel and a plastic bag from the counter.

After pushing her straight, long, dark-brown hair over her shoulder, Caprice dropped the paper towel on the puddle, grabbed Lady's leash and headed onto the back porch, patting her hip so her dog would follow her.

Caprice's bangs blew in the wind and she knew that she should be wearing her hat, but it was in her van. She attached Lady's leash and had to laugh as the cocker romped in the snow patches and turned around to look at Caprice as if asking her if she wanted to play. After all, she was wearing boots. She ran to the edge of the yard with her, said, "Go potty," and waited as Lady did her business. She praised her while she did.

After Caprice cleaned up, she followed the five-month-old pup back inside. Lady shook herself, leaving sparkles of water on the kitchen floor.

"I'll get it," she told anyone in the vicinity. She wasn't going to cause any extra work here today.

Taking care of a newborn wasn't easy in the best of households. Joe had seemed to form a new cooperation with Bella since little Benedict was born, but you never knew when that could end.

While Caprice cleaned up the kitchen floor, she saw Joe had taken the baby from his wife and was walking him.

Bella held up a bottle. "He just won't take it from me. And he has to or I'll never get any sleep."

Her sister had been breastfeeding but was trying to transition her newborn to a bottle so Joe could handle some of the feedings...or a babysitter could.

Joe assured her, "Maybe he's just not hungry."

"He's a baby. He has to be hungry," Bella insisted.

Lady whined at the anxiousness in Bella's tone.

Focusing on the situation at hand, Caprice realized the best thing she could do for her sister was to take her older kids out of the house, maybe ice skating, sometime soon.

"I thought Lady would entertain the kids," she said. "But we're adding to the commotion."

"And you didn't want to leave your dog home alone too much, " Joe added, as if he'd heard it all before. "She's a pup. She can't be alone all the time, or she'll develop bad habits. I've got three kids. I know all about bad habits."

His expression was even, and Caprice couldn't really tell what he was thinking. Actually, she used to be able to tell better. Not that she could ever read his mind. But he'd turned over a new leaf last summer, and now it was hard to tell exactly what he was feeling...or thinking.

She crossed to Bella who looked close to tears. "Bee, you just fed Benny not so long ago."

Bella shook her head. "But he's crying again." Caprice was at a loss. Pups and kittens she understood. Babies, not so much. "Maybe he just needs a little walk or something."

Bella glanced around her house. "It's not as if we have that far to walk, and I don't want to take him outside when it's this cold. I just wish the snow and sleet would stop and the sun would come out."

Bella had deep blue smudges under her eyes. Her hair didn't look as if it had been washed today. Her slacks and sweatshirt weren't anything a recent fashion magazine would advertise. Caprice wondered if Joe had been helping at night or if—

As if Bella could read her thoughts, she assured Caprice, "Joe's been getting up with me at night. He's been great." She smiled up at him.

Caprice had noticed that Joe had been kind and attentive soon after he and Bella had started counseling with Father Gregory last summer. He'd been by her side during every minute of her labor and delivery. He really had seemed to change from the arrogant man he'd once been. Caprice wondered, though, if he had changed for good, or if he'd changed for Father Gregory's approval...or the De Luca family's approval, for that matter. Eight months ago her sister's marriage had almost fallen apart when Bella had found out she was pregnant again...and soon after when both she and Joe had become suspects in a murder investigation.

Now, Caprice and her family just weren't sure what to think about the couple. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, she thought. Wasn't that the Italian Catholic motto?

Joe jiggled his youngest son and repositioned him on his shoulder. "It's really okay if you leave, Caprice."

She should. Leaving was better for them and better for her. As it was, she might be a few minutes late for her meeting with her sister Nikki—who was catering the Hearts and Flowers open house—and Louise Downing.

"I made a mac and cheese casserole," she explained to Joe. "With Mom's creamy cheese sauce you like so much. Put it in the oven, ten minutes later shove in the chicken fingers, and everything should get done about half an hour after that. I even steamed broccoli and all you have to do is warm that up in the microwave. It's a semi-healthy meal. I brought along some new cookies I whipped up for Valentine's Day, too. Give them a taste and let me know if you like them."

"What's in them?" Joe asked suspiciously.

"White chocolate, dried cranberries, orange zest and a secret ingredient," Caprice answered jovially, learning that was the best way with Joe.

The infant had quieted now and Joe said to Caprice, "I'll walk you out. Can you get the dog okay?"

In no time at all, Caprice had buttoned her jacket, rounded up Lady and clipped on her leash once more. After giving the kids and Bella kisses and hugs, she walked to the door.

In a low voice, Joe thanked her. "I appreciate everything you're doing. Don't think I'll forget it."

"We're family, Joe. We stick together, good times and bad. You and Bella have had enough of the bad." She added, "Just remember, she could still be going through some post-partum baby blues—"

"You have to meddle, don't you?" he asked in a resigned almost amused tone. "But I guess I can accept that now because I know it's for her own good...and mine. I'm making sure she does something for herself each day, even it it's just to take a bubble bath."

Perhaps Joe really had changed.

Lady was dancing around, keeping near to Caprice's legs.

Caprice squeezed her brother-in-law's arm affectionately. "Thanks for taking care of my sister. I'll see you soon."

Once outside, Caprice opened her van. Because Lady was still a pup, she enclosed her in a crate in the back. She used this one solely in the van and when they traveled. That kept her safe. Fortunately, Louise and her husband Chet liked animals. They especially liked Lady, so she'd been a welcome guest at their house as they'd talked over strategies for staging their house to sell.

Caprice tossed a treat into the crate and Lady went in after it. When she turned around again, Caprice made a fuss, praising her, saying "Good dog" over and over. She gave her another treat from her pocket and closed the door. They'd worked on crate training early on. Lady didn't mind being closed inside because they went fun places and had new adventures.

Snow was falling softly as Caprice climbed in the driver's side of her vehicle. She always smiled when she saw the swirling turquoise, fuchsia and lime psychedelic colors painted on the side along with a few large flowers and turquoise lettering that read Caprice De Luca – Redesign and Home Staging. She loved the sixties and it showed in her fashions, in her house stagings, and especially in her home decorating. No matter who she was decorating or staging for, she chose colors because of the emotions they evoked. Sixties colors made her happy.

She switched on her windshield wipers but didn't really need them. The flurries were teeny dots that didn't even leave wet spots. She hoped the snow wouldn't fall heavier until much later. Then neither she nor Nikki would have to worry about driving in it.

With her own catering business, her older sister Nikki always helped with Caprice's house stagings, and together they made them events. This was a busy time of year for both of them. They'd be helping with Kismet's Give-From-The-Heart Day food and clothing drive, as well as the Valentine's Day dance. The next two weeks would be nonstop activity.

Dusk was wrapping itself around the town as Caprice drove her van down slush-filled streets. The temperature hovered around thirty-two.

Crossing White Rose Way—the main street arrowing through the center of town—she headed for the outskirts of Kismet and the Downings' neighborhood. The streets hadn't been cleaned as well in this section where snow banks lined the road. Expensive houses stretched along Middlebrook Drive where Louise lived. These homes weren't quite mansions, but they sprawled across acre lots. Many of them were older, unlike the new estates in the Reservoir Heights area. Country club patrons inhabited the homes on Middlebrook and had lived in them for more than one generation.

Louise and Chet Downing's property was elegant and pleasing to the eye. The house covered about forty-eight hundred square feet. Caprice knew almost every square foot since she was in the process of staging it. She drove around the front of the property, whose boundary was delineated by an intricate brick and stone wall. Sturdy brick pillars stood at ten-foot intervals. A broad lawn, now mostly snow-covered led up to the front entrances with the floor-to-ceiling unique window treatments, arches, and multi-paned glass. A four-story sycamore, its branches still prettily snow-covered, draped over the front lawn. Multilevel roofs and gables lent character to the house, and evergreen shrubs gave color to what could have been a drab winter landscape.

Louise was quite the gardener and had a hand in the landscaping. Come spring, color would overflow from every planter, border, and manicured garden surrounding the house. Since she enjoyed dabbling in a greenhouse of her own out back, every January she started plants from seeds—impatiens, geraniums and petunias.

Caprice drove toward the garage side of the house and the greenhouse, entering the driveway in the rear of the property. She appreciated the architecture of the back of the house almost as much as the front. French doors on the first and second floors provided panoramic views of the gardens. Now, however, she parked her van, exited, and released Lady from her crate. After attaching the leash, she watched the pup jump from the van onto the snow-cleared driveway. Every day, Caprice spent time training Lady with gentle, reward-earning incentives. They were working on "heel" and Lady was learning how to walk on a loose leash beside her. Together they ambled up the flagstone path to the kitchen entrance. This is where friends and family usually entered.

Louise's maid, Rachel Cosgrove, answered the melodic chime of the back door. She was about Caprice's age, thirty-two, with honey-blond hair she kept restrained in a low ponytail. "C'mon in. Nikki and Mrs. Downing have been chatting. It's surely cold out there, isn't it? I'll take your coat."

Caprice could hear voices coming from the breakfast nook. When Caprice removed Lady's leash, the cocker raced to the women, wiggling around their feet.

After Caprice shrugged out of her jacket, she handed it to Rachel as Louise smiled and made an attempt to pet Lady. But her smile seemed a little forced.

Nikki patted the chair seat next to her. The burgundy and green flowered chairs on wheels suited their staging theme, so Caprice hadn't suggested Louise change them. Glancing at Nikki again, Caprice realized her sister must have had her hair highlighted recently because golden strands in the midst of dark brown glowed under the shiny brass chandelier. She looked gorgeous.

Louise told Rachel, "Bring a cup of coffee with cream and sugar for Caprice." Her tone was a bit absent, even a little condescending.

Caprice took the chair Nikki offered, wondering if Louise was worried about this open house...or something else.

Staging the house had been easy. Louise's home was all about "pretty" mixed with "elegant." Lace curtains at the windows and gilt-edged mirrors added a touch of old world feel. Heart-shaped pillows trimmed with ecru lace decorated the loveseat by the small fireplace in the kitchen, as well as the rose and green damask-covered sofa in the living room. Caprice had de-cluttered a bit for the house staging but, for the most part, had just re-arranged the expensive furnishings and valuable antiques Louise had chosen over the years.

After greetings all around, Nikki nodded to the tablet computer in front of her. "We're brainstorming what to serve at the open house. I know your theme is hearts and flowers, but how over-the-top Valentine's Day do you want to make it?"

"There's no over-the-top for Valentine's Day," Louise maintained, possibly a little too firmly to be believable. "After all, Chet and I fell in love at first sight at The Pretzel Party's Valentine Day shindig all those years ago."

Louise almost sounded as if she was trying to convince herself as well as them, and Caprice wondered why. She knew Louise's story well because Louise and her mom had become fast friends when they'd met at St. Francis of Assisi Church soon after Louise first arrived in Kismet. Back then, she'd been a secretary at The Pretzel Party, Chet Downing's snack company. She'd caught his eye, and they'd gotten married over thirty years ago. Theirs had been one of those Cinderella stories that had become a legend in Kismet.

But something about Louise's attitude tonight made Caprice wonder if Louise and Chet had argued about something. Obviously, Louise loved lace and gold leaf, flowers and hearts. Her house reflected that. However, now she and Chet wanted to downsize to travel more. This house staging and open house was supposedly going to sell the Downing estate faster. Hearts and flowers had been the obvious theme, especially with Valentine's Day right around the corner.

"Do you really think Chet's going to be happy selling The Pretzel Party?" Caprice asked Louise now, guessing the man of the house was in his den down the hall away from their planning session.

"He's always wanted to travel more," Louise answered. "With no restrictions on our time, we can choose places we both want to see." She hesitated, then added a bit thin-lipped, "By the way, he's staying overnight in Philadelphia tonight for a late meeting. At least he won't be on the road in this weather."

So Chet wasn't down the hall. Maybe he and Louise had disagreed about going to Philly this weekend?

As Rachel set a porcelain cup and saucer before Caprice, Louise scolded, saying, "You really should switch to herbal tea, Caprice, or at least decaffeinated coffee. I had a latté at the Koffee Klatch just a few weeks ago. After I drank half of it, my heart skipped beats. The barista had used caffeinated coffee instead of decaffeinated. I could have gotten her fired but she was young and in a hurry."

Because her mom and Louise were friends, Caprice knew Louise had suffered with atrial fibrillation and tachycardia since she was young. The arrhythmia didn't act up often, but caffeine could activate the problem.

"I drink tea with Nana. I'll try to switch from coffee to tea at home, too," she assured Louise, knowing if she didn't, the older woman would try more thoroughly to convince her. Louise's opinions were usually unshakeable.

Moving their meeting forward, Caprice asked Nikki, "So what did you have in mind for food for the open house?"

Lady had settled at Caprice's feet and her tail wagged against the floor in a thump-thump-thump rhythm. Some people found that thumping bothersome, but Caprice found it soothing.

Nikki glanced at Caprice then read from her list on her e-tablet. "We talked about hor d'oeurves. They're easy—heart-shaped bruschetta, kiwi slices with tiny cream cheese hearts in the centers. I also have access to soup bowls shaped like hearts that would be great for tomato bisque. I can use red rose petals to decorate the plates, and carnations are edible too. They can taste spicy, peppery, even clove-like. Chrysanthemums have a more bitter taste so I could use some of their petals in the salads."

Nikki paused and thought about that. "Some people have allergies to flowers in food, though, so it might be better just to decorate the buffet with them rather than use them in the dishes. We wouldn't want anyone to have an allergic attack."

"Goodness no," Louise said, her hand covering her heart. "No flowers in the food. Nevertheless, red rose petals on a white tablecloth would look fabulous."

"Not everything has to be heart-shaped," Caprice reminded them. "I just made a batch of white chocolate and cranberry cookies. They'd be a great Valentine treat with chamomile tea, hot chocolate, or coffee."

"Not to mention strawberry cheesecake, and cherries with meringue," Nikki suggested with a lift of one brow. "The choices are endless with this kind of theme."

"I spoke with Jamie Bergman at Garden Glory," Louise informed them. "I placed an order for peace lilies, grafted hibiscus trees and, of course, palms. Jamie had the terrific idea of planting flowers in the base of the palms. She's going to look into exactly what varieties are available and get back to me."

Louise was one of those clients who liked control over the house staging. Since she knew plants and flowers well, Caprice had let her handle that, though she or her assistant would actually place them.

Caprice tapped Nikki's electronic tablet. "What about our main dishes? When guests come to one of my stagings, they expect substantial food, too."

Nikki nodded. "I was thinking of prosciutto-wrapped stuffed chicken. Sliced correctly, the slices could look like heart shapes. Fettuccini would go well with it. Shrimp scampi is another possibility. I also thought about using those heart-shaped bowls for individual casseroles of shepherd's pie with lamb and pork. This time of year, with this weather, that kind of food can warm your heart."

"That sounds wonderful," Louise agreed. "But back to incidentals... Let's not forget chocolate-covered peanut butter creams. They're my favorite candy." Her eyes seemed to grow a little misty as she added, "Chet and I shared a few of those the first night we met."

Louise and Chet had been married for thirty years. Caprice's mom and dad had been married thirty-seven years. So the idea of a life-long union wasn't foreign. Yet Caprice could hardly imagine being married to someone for that long. Still she wanted that kind of committed, all-in-for-life marriage. If it was happy. Was Louise still happy? Was Chet?

Back to the subject at hand, Caprice said, "We'll make sure we have your favorite peanut butter creams." In fact, her mom had mentioned she might send Louise a box for Valentine's Day.

Rachel approached the table, her expression worried. "I don't mean to interrupt, Mrs. Downing, but the snow is falling rather heavily again."

The blinds in the nook were closed. Louise looked toward them and nodded. "Thank you for telling us."

"I think we're ready," Caprice announced. "The house is staged exactly the way we want it except for the plants, and Garden Glory will deliver them the day before the open house. The menu sounds perfect. By next weekend, we'll be all set."

A few minutes later after Rachel procured their coats and they hugged and said their goodbyes, Caprice walked Lady to her van.

She happened a glance at the frosting of snow on the driveway and caught the glare of headlights as a truck sped away from the driveway's entrance. A visitor who decided not to come in? A wrong turn on a snowy night?

Caprice gave herself a mental shake. She was just paranoid because she'd been followed once before. She'd been tailed and almost killed.

Nothing was going to happen tonight.

Lady dashed into her crate. Caprice lavished her with praise and another tiny piece of doggie cookie. After she climbed in, buckled up, and started the van, she followed Nikki's car out of the driveway.

Her sister's car had just turned off onto a side street when the snow swirled in almost blizzard proportions with a howl of wind. Recently snow squalls seemed to become more prevalent in the Pennsylvania winter weather patterns. She was glad Lady was safely enclosed in her crate.

Caprice was carefully slowing for a stop sign when her cell phone played the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" from her cup holder. She thought about not taking the call, but then her curiosity, as usual, got the best of her.

Checking the caller ID, she saw that the caller was Grant Weatherford, her brother's law partner. She listened to a few more notes of the music and took a deep breath. Lately Grant's voice made her feel both excited and nervous. They'd been getting along better since he'd adopted Patches, Lady's brother. They discussed training techniques and used similar strategies, comparing notes. But there was still so much tension between them.

She swiped her finger across the face of her phone and picked it up. "Hey, Grant, what's up?"

"I think we have a problem," he warned her.

She started off again across the intersection, wishing she still had tail lights in front of her to follow. "And what might that be?" she asked.

"I think your brother is in love with Roz Winslow. What are we going to do about it?"

The question so startled Caprice and broke her concentration that she hit a patch of ice and slid sideways into a snow bank by the side of the road.

© Karen Rose Smith 2014

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