The mansion that stood before Caprice De Luca was a bit rundown but still magnificent. As an early September breeze tossed her long, dark-brown hair, as well as the leaves around her feet, Caprice remembered that the Tudor revival had hit America during the 1920s and 30s when this edifice had been built. It was a monstrous home, yet charming too because of the steeply pitched roof with prominent cross gables. Those gables were embellished with half-timbering against stucco walls. Decorative chimney pots topped the thick brick chimney.
End of the day light flickered against the tall windows arranged in groups of three. Each had diamond-shaped panes that reflected the sunlight. As a home stager, Caprice considered how light shone into a room. However, she wouldn't be looking at this house to stage it to sell. She'd be planning how to furnish and decorate it.
Caprice ascended the front steps, passing under the arched portico that supported a room above it. She couldn't wait to see the inside. Wendy Newcomb had said she'd be waiting for her.
This estate had been donated to Sunrise Tomorrow, a cause that had been a passion of Wendy Newcomb's since she'd established a foundation for the women's shelter in Kismet about a decade ago. She ate and slept her work, advocating for and caring for women who were victims of domestic violence. Caprice was here today to take a look at the mansion and propose ideas for decorating it so that it was suitable for a housing facility for women who were in need of transitional care. She was going to make their rooms feel like places they'd want to spend time.
The heavy wood-paneled door stood slightly open. Before Caprice understood what was happening, a yellow tabby cat ran up the steps and slipped inside. Did the Wyatt estate have a resident feline?
Caprice pushed the door open wider, but it took an effort. Maybe the hinges were just warped...or maybe that door was meant to be a barricade. Instantly, she was in awe of the Carrera marble floor in the grand foyer and the spacious living room before her. She'd started across the foyer when she heard angry voices near the wide, curved stairway that led to the second floor. Since the mansion was practically empty, except for sawhorses, ladders, and building supplies, she could hear some of what was being said across the room.
A man's voice rose and carried all the way to the foyer. "Where is she?" he demanded.
Caprice recognized Wendy's voice, lower than his. She couldn't catch every word. From what she knew of Wendy, the director of Sunrise Tomorrow was trying to remain calm and serene in the face of an angry male.
Whatever explanation Wendy gave didn't seem to satisfy the man, and now Caprice recognized his voice, too. It belonged to Warren Shaeffer, CEO of Kismet's Millennium Printing and the president of the town's Chamber of Commerce. He didn't fly off the handle easily. Stoic was usually his middle name. Apparently not today.
Moving closer to the stairway, Caprice saw Warren point his finger at Wendy. "You have no right to interfere."
Unsure exactly what to do, Caprice continued to approach them. She could see Wendy was red-faced. Oblivious to a third party, she poked Warren Shaeffer in the chest and determined in a clipped voice, "I don't need to tell you anything. You'd better leave before I call the police. I don't think you'd want the general public to know that you can't hold your temper."
Suddenly Shaeffer shifted on his feet and spotted Caprice. He seemed to take a breath, rein in his anger, intentionally relax his shoulders, and act as if this interchange with Wendy was no big deal.
Caprice was almost at Wendy's side now as he made a nonchalantly composed remark that she didn't expect. "I'll look forward to seeing both of you at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting." With a forced smile at Caprice, he hurried to the front door and exited the house.
Wendy looked so relieved as he left. She pasted on a smile just as forced as his had been and pretended as if her conversation with him hadn't affected her at all. "That was an unexpected meeting," she apologized. "Come on, let me show you around. The workmen have left for the day."
It was obvious Wendy didn't want to talk about the encounter that had just happened. But as she walked beside Caprice and led her up the stairs, Caprice could see the woman's hands were shaking a little. A result of stress...her position...the legacy of the Wyatt estate? Or because of Warren Shaeffer?
Caprice had never seen him lose his temper. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, she had watched him remain cool over many a heated discussion. However, those discussions hadn't been personal. Today's discussion with Wendy had sounded very personal.
The stairs led to a second floor hallway. As they reached the second floor landing, Caprice could see a balustrade that stretched from one side of the hall to the other. It overlooked the spacious foyer.
She could smell the dust in the air, spotted sawhorses down the hall and drop cloths in the first bedroom. Roller window shades, perhaps collected from the upstairs rooms, lay in a stack near the balustrade. Sitting next to the pile of shades was a yellow tabby blinking at her with jewel-like green eyes.
Caprice started toward the wooden railing, intending to get closer to the cat.
Wendy caught her arm. "Oh, no! Don't go there. The balusters aren't stable. I told the contractor he should put a warning sawhorse there or something, but he hasn't. I'll remind him again tomorrow."
Caprice glanced down at the pile of shades, with their scalloped edge and fringes and wooden bar across the front for lowering and raising the window covering. They were yellowed and looked as old as the house. Then she again studied the feline.
"Are you friendly?" she asked him.
As if in answer, he stretched and came to her, rubbing against her retro plaid slacks with an insert side pleat that ran from knee to ankle. Retro fashion was one of her passions. Cats and dogs were another. She crouched down and offered him her hand. He butted his head against it.
"He's very friendly," Wendy said. "I found him curled up in one of the bedrooms upstairs when nights began turning colder. I've been here almost every day to check on something, so I feed him wet food then leave a bowl of dry in the bedroom upstairs. I've named him Sunnybud. I think he slips in through a broken basement window when the door isn't open. He doesn't seem to mind the workers who are in and out."
The tabby purred as Caprice petted him. Then suddenly he left her, crossing to sit once more beside the pile of window shades.
Wendy motioned to the rest of the upstairs and began walking. Caprice glanced over her shoulder at the tabby who seemed contented where he was.
As they walked down the hall, she asked Wendy, "Is most of the work here cosmetic, or are there structural issues?"
"Fortunately, inside the house, most of the work is cosmetic—steaming off wallpaper, patch plastering, painting, modernizing a few of the bathrooms. We also have to add a new roof. I don't want any problems in the next few years with leakage. But all in all, the mansion is in amazingly good shape. Houses were built to last in the 1920s. This one had a grand past with good upkeep until the last dozen years or so. When Leona got sick, everything seemed to be a burden, even lifting the phone to call a plumber."
Leona Wyatt had faced a battle with cancer. Scuttlebutt had it she thought she'd won after her first bout with it. But eight years later it had come roaring back and had taken her.
"She had children, didn't she? Couldn't they help her?"
"A look passed over Wendy's face that Caprice couldn't quite decipher. But then Caprice learned its meaning—disgust. Wendy said, "Her son and daughter didn't pay much attention to her, even when she was sick. They were no help at all."
Caprice wondered if that was why Leona Wyatt had left her son and daughter money in trust, yet left the mansion and the rest of her money to Sunrise Tomorrow. She'd heard the Wyatt siblings were squabbling over the fact they felt they should have received the legacy left to the Sunrise Tomorrow Foundation. However, there had been a stipulation in Leona's will that if they contested it, they would receive nothing. The Wyatt estate had been through probate and settled without incident. Apparently the brother and sister hadn't wanted to take a chance of contesting the will and losing...or spending years in court awaiting a decision.
Caprice followed Wendy from room to room, snapping photos on her phone, loving a peek into the house that had to be filled with memories of days gone by. They chatted about goings-on in Kismet as they walked. When they finished on the second floor, they descended the back stairs into the kitchen area where a brick fireplace stretched from floor to ceiling in the sitting area. A butler's pantry and maid's suite were located behind the kitchen. Caprice noted the utility room was almost as large as her living room.
Wendy explained, "I want to uphold the original grandeur of the house, yet I want it to be homey too. Does that make sense?"
"Perfect sense. You said this would be a transitional facility. Just what does that mean?"
An old-time deacon's bench still sat in one corner of the kitchen. Wendy motioned to it, and they both took a seat there.
"Most of the women who come to Sunrise Tomorrow need a port in a storm for a couple of nights until they find shelter with a friend or a family member," Wendy explained. "Once they've left their immediate situation, obtained a PFA—Protect From Abuse order—most are involved in programs such as counseling and job training."
She shifted a bit on the bench. "But some women need a haven for longer than a few nights. Before the Wyatt legacy came through, I'd encouraged the board of the Foundation to consider buying some sort of apartment building to house women in those circumstances. Now the Wyatt estate will be perfect for that. Clients can stay a month or two or three, do job training on site, pick up skills they need as well as self-confidence and independence. Our main facility will be what it still is—an emergency haven with services for follow up. But this place? This place can be so much more. I'm excited about it, Caprice, because we can help so many more women."
Caprice waited a beat, but then asked, "Do you want to talk about what happened earlier...when I first arrived?"
Wendy stared into the empty fireplace, soot-stained from years of use. "I can't talk about most of it, you know that. Although I'm not a therapist, the work I do is confidential. It has to be."
Wendy said that last with such vehemence Caprice studied the woman's face. There were lines around her eyes and around her mouth. Her nose looked as if it might have been broken. Strands of grey salted her medium brown hair. Caprice didn't know Wendy's story. Nobody did, as far as she knew. And that was a feat to keep background a secret in a town the size of Kismet. On the other hand, Wendy's present-day life seemed to be an open book. She lived with her significant other, Sebastian Thompson, and his two sons. But her past was a blank slate on the gossip mill.
"I know you have to keep confidences," Caprice agreed. "But that discussion I walked in on concerned you too, didn't it?"
After hesitating, Wendy admitted, "It did. And I'll confess Warren Shaeffer scares me. He has one of those Jekyll-Hyde personalities. Only those closest to him see the Mr. Hyde side."
No, Wendy couldn't break any confidences, but what she was implying was that Warren's wife had probably sought services at the shelter. His question, Where is she? could mean that Wendy had helped his wife relocate somewhere else, at least for now.
Obviously wanting this discussion to be over, Wendy stood. "Let me show you the rest of the house. I have a meeting in half an hour, but we can finish touring the inside anyway. You can explore the grounds when you come to actually do the decorating. I'm going to trust you with the furnishings for most of it. I think you understand what I want. But after you turn your proposal in, I'd like to discuss updating our original quarters. Do you have time to fit that into your schedule too?"
Furnishing and decorating the Wyatt estate and updating the original Sunrise Tomorrow facility could bring in substantial income. She'd fit it into her schedule somehow.
"I'd be glad to talk about updating. When would you like to do that?"
"Why don't we keep that less formal? Why don't you come to dinner on Saturday with me and Sebastian and the boys?"
Caprice didn't know how long Wendy had been living with architect Sebastian Thompson and his sons, but it sounded as if they'd formed a family.
"I'd like that. Where do you live?"
"We live in the Poplar Grove Co-housing Development. Do you know where that is?"
Although Caprice wasn't exactly sure what co-housing meant, she'd passed the Poplar Grove development on occasion. It was located east of town.
"I've never visited the development itself, but I've gotten a glimpse of it when I visited Ace Richland's estate."
"That's right, you helped him out of a sticky situation not so long ago."
Last spring, Ace—a rock star legend—had found himself a suspect in a murder investigation and Caprice had indeed helped clear his name. Treating that lightly, however, she responded, "Ace and I have gotten to know each other since he bought the house I staged."
"He's on tour now, isn't he?"
"He's zig-zagging across the country. He returns every couple of weeks to spend time with his daughter."
"The way it should be," Wendy said. "Sebastian complains he wants to spend time with his boys, but they don't want to spend time with him anymore. You have to take advantage of bonding time while you can."
"I'd like to find out more about co-housing."
"Basically, it's cooperative living. We're not self-sustaining like many co-housing communities, but we help out each other when we can. I'm sure Sebastian can tell you all about it. He's the one who developed the mission statement."
"I look forward to it," Caprice said.
As Wendy walked Caprice out of the kitchen into a smaller dining room, and then a much larger one, Caprice began envisioning the colors she would use to warm up the house as well as the groupings of furniture she'd select that would invite conversation. This project could easily consume her.
She smiled to herself. It was exactly the kind of project she liked best.