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Book Seven

Slay Bells Ring


Chapter One

"Your Christmas Delight theme for staging this house is perfect," Sara Merriweather told Caprice De Luca on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Yet Sara's voice held forced cheerfulness and her eyes were troubled.

Caprice was enchanted with the nineteen-eighteen historic Colonial on a side street in the oldest neighborhood in Kismet, Pennsylvania. But ever since she'd been putting the finishing touches on staging the house to sell, her client had looked worried.

Part of her job as house stager was to set up a house to sell quickly. The other part? Listening to homeowners' concerns, helping them declutter and teaching them to show off their home in the best possible light. However, listening was her best asset.

"What do you have doubts about?" she asked Sara.

Her client glanced around the grand entry, the beautiful heart pine floors under the Oriental rugs, the wide entrance to the living room on the right, a hall leading back to the kitchen along the stairway, as well as the spacious parlor to the left.

"This house has been nothing but a delight for all the years we've lived here," Sara explained. "That's why I don't understand why Chris is so sure about selling it, about moving us into a condo in a retirement village. He insists I won't have steps to do and we'll have less to maintain. But he's acting like we're eighty years old instead of sixty-six. I love this house, especially now with the way you've decorated it for Christmas. I just don't understand why he's pushing to sell fast."

"Maybe now that he's made the decision, he just wants to do it. He doesn't want to linger over the memories here as you do."

Sara shook her head as if she just couldn't understand her husband's thought process or lack of attachment. "Our children love this house too."

Caprice had used her red and white theme throughout the colonial in addition to lots of brass. She'd chosen to keep the pine antiques in place as well as the huge sleigh bed in the master bedroom. This time of year, especially, with the house on the historic home town tour, it could sell quickly. Still, she heard all of the doubts in Sara Merriweather's voice—none of the doubts that she'd heard from Christopher Merriweather when the couple had signed the contract to stage the home.

Pushing her straight long brown hair over her shoulder, she focused her attention on Sara and asked, "Do you want to have a cup of tea and talk about it?"

"Do you have time?"

Caprice made time for anything important to her. The Merriweathers weren't simply her clients. Christopher Merriweather was her dad's poker buddy. She knew her father was especially fond of Blitz, Chris's white Malamute, who usually attended the poker games too. As a favor to her dad, Caprice had spoken to Chris about staging the house to sell it more quickly, and he'd convinced Sara. Now Caprice wondered if that had been the best idea.

Sara led Caprice back the hall to the state-of-the art chef's kitchen with its black granite eat-at counter, its custom crafted walnut-finished cabinets, its high-end appliances. The terrazzo floor extended into a dining area where Caprice knew Sara and Chris had enjoyed many dinners with their children. The Merriweathers were proud of their family just as the De Lucas were.

Sara filled the copper teapot from the filtered water spigot and set it on the burner. She turned on the stove and looked around the kitchen.

Chris's hobby was crafting toys in the workshop out back. Some of those toys Caprice had scattered behind the decorative spindle railing along the top of the cupboards. They were interspersed with sparkling flameless candles on timers. She'd switched them on to see how they'd look and she liked the effect. The wooden toy train, the horse pull toy and the assorted blocks accompanied the old-fashioned look of most of the house.

Sara motioned to the table, its gleaming polish reflecting the crystal vase that held pine boughs, white mums, red roses, and red Christmas balls. "You've really done a beautiful job with this staging, Caprice. When you suggested we take a storage unit for the extras, I never thought we'd fill it, but we did. You've eliminated furniture that just wasn't necessary to make what is here really stand out."

Taking a seat at the eat-at counter, Caprice brushed the cuffs of her Bohemian top's flowing sleeves above her wrists. Her retro fashion sense was at work even over the holidays. Her hunter green bell bottoms matched the swirls in her red and green blouse. She responded to Sara's statement with a smile. "That's what staging a house is all about. Nikki has a wonderful buffet planned. We'll go over it before the open house." Caprice's sister, who ran a catering business, helped make each open house a success with her layout of tempting dishes.

When the economy had hit a downturn and decorating houses and Caprice's design degree hadn't been in demand, she'd transformed her business into that of a home staging company. Her reputation for coming up with unique themes for high-end clients had made the rounds of the surrounding area, even leading her to a win a competition for designing a house on a cable TV show. That had garnered her even more clients.

Over the past few years, she'd learned the ins and outs of the business the hard way by trial and error. She kept up with trends, but mostly went with the feel of the house. The idea of doing this colonial, and an historic one at that, with the theme of Christmas Delight had been a no-brainer. After all, Chris Merriweather even played Santa Claus!

The tea kettle whistled and Sara switched off the burner. Her thoughts apparently running in the same direction as Caprice's, she said, "They moved the Santa cabin into the community park."

"I imagine Chris is looking forward to starting his Santa role after the parade next Sunday."

Children came from the surrounding areas to see Santa or drop off their letters to him. The downtown area would extend store hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the park would be lit up with twinkle lights especially along Santa Lane, the path leading to the cabin-like structure.

"He looks forward to meeting with the children and reading their letters every year. I'm hoping his Santa duties a few evenings a week and on Saturdays will bring up his energy."

"He's been tired lately?"

"He's been taking shorter walks with Blitz. Ever since his yearly trip to D.C. with his friends, he's been quieter than usual yet he won't slow down. This time of year business really revs up at the craft shop and Chris always feels as if he has to be on top of everything. Sometimes I think he needs to sell the business and retire. My memory isn't as great as it once was and neither is his. He keeps all the facts and figures in his head for inventory sheets and payroll. I finally convinced him to hire help. Marty enters all the receipts into the computer and can keep records as well as Chris. But, of course, Chris always feels he has to go back and check everything that Marty does."

Merriweather Crafts had been in business for at least the past twenty years. It was a craft shop that had changed with the times and done well. Caprice knew Sara helped out when they were busy, but she spent most of her time teaching scrapbooking and tole painting classes as well as helping to keep the office in order.

"Is Chris at the craft store now?"

"Yes. He's getting ready for a rush on Christmas crafts when we open in the morning."

"Is Blitz with him?" Caprice missed the friendly presence of the Malamute.

"They're together. They're inseparable. And I suppose that's a good thing. We all need a friend who loves us unconditionally. That's what Blitz does for Chris."

After Sara had pulled an old-fashioned decorative tin from a cupboard and opened it, Caprice chose an orange cinnamon teabag and dipped it into the hot water in her porcelain teacup. Sara chose chamomile tea, and Caprice could see that she was stressed by the whole idea of selling the house. Maybe they should clarify something now.

As Sara sat with her and they let their tea cool a bit, Caprice said, "You're contracted with me to stage the house, and you're listed with Denise Langford to sell." Denise was a luxury real estate broker who handled many of Caprice's clients. "But maybe you should talk to Chris again about this. We can still cancel Saturday's open house and you can back out of the listing."

Sara shook her head. "I hate to say it, but I think the only thing Chris is going to miss about this house is his workshop in the carriage house. There is nothing to talk about."

Except Sara's feelings, Caprice thought ruefully. "Is he going to continue to make hand-crafted toys if you sell?"

"He insists he can rent a space if he wants to continue. He seems to have everything worked out yet I don't understand his thinking at all. Most of all, he doesn't seem happy."

A Vietnam veteran, Chris Merriweather was the jovial Santa-type at Christmas. Other times... Oh, he was always pleasant and very kind, generous to his employees and friends. Yet over the years, even Caprice had seen shadows in Chris's eyes from the time he spent in Vietnam that he could probably never forget.

Caprice said, "I have a few finishing touches to make then I'll be out of your hair—at least for now. I'd like to hang a heritage wreath on the spare room door upstairs and add the spruce and pomegranate sachets to the bedrooms."

"That sounds nice. Those crystal nappies you found in my hutch to display them are perfect for all of the bedrooms. Yes, I want you to go ahead with it. Do you really think this house will sell fast?"

"Oh, I do. It has the square footage and the polish and the charm. If it doesn't sell from the open house, think about how many people will be coming through for the historic house tour. There's no way to know for sure, but I would expect you to have a contract by the new year."

"This is really happening." Sara sank against the shiny wood of the chair back. At sixty-six, she looked closer to fifty. Her ash blond hair was permed in sort of a pompadour, then trimmed snuggly to fit against her neck and around her ears. Her blue eyes were usually full of excitement and smiles. However, today, even dressed in a beautiful red, two-piece suit with a holly pin on the collar, she looked a bit weary. Maybe Chris wasn't the only one who was tired of working and juggling life.

Suddenly, a loud bang-bang-bang on the front door startled them both.

"Are you expecting someone?" Caprice asked. "Someone who doesn't know you have a beautiful sounding doorbell?"

"Not expecting anyone. I'd better answer it before whoever it is breaks the door down."

Caprice could see down the hall to the front door as Sara hurried to open it. When she did, she faced a male who was about six-two with gelled black hair that wasn't exactly a Mohawk but could have been. He was wearing a leather jacket but Caprice spotted tattoos circling his neck. They were probably down his arms too. Caprice caught a glimpse of the man's face as he shifted from one booted foot to the other.

Sara remained calm, however, in the face of his scowl. "Can I help you, Boyd?" she asked politely, obviously knowing the younger man.

"You certainly can help me. I received a phone call from the chief of police last night. Chief Powalski told me that if my band doesn't find another place to practice at night, we'll all be charged with disorderly conduct. I can't make a living if I can't practice."

Sara suggested, "Can't you practice at another band member's house?"

"No, we can't. I have the equipment and I'm not lugging it all over town. If your husband knows what's good for him, he'll lay off calls to the cops or he'll be sorry."

Whew! Caprice thought. She wouldn't want that guy who was obviously a neighbor coming to her door.

When Sara returned to the kitchen, Caprice asked, "Who was that?"

"His name is Boyd Arkoff and he lives next door. Chris has enough trouble sleeping at night. I don't know if this band has Christmas gigs or what, but they've been practicing nightly right back there in Boyd's garage." She motioned toward the rear of their yard. "We have a wide property with the carriage house and the garage, so you can imagine how loud Boyd's band has to be for us to hear it in winter with the windows shut and furnace running. Chris couldn't take the noise any more and he asked Mack to make the call."

The chief of police, Mack Powalski, had been like a favorite uncle when Caprice and her siblings were growing up. He was a good friend of her dad's and he was a friend of Chris' too. In fact, she remembered that he'd served in Vietnam with Chris. It only made sense that Chris might have asked Mack to do him a favor. Yet this one might have backfired.

"Do you know what Boyd means when he says Chris will be sorry?"

"Oh, just that he'll just turn up the volume and play even more at night. I don't think he has the best attitude. I heard he dropped out of high school, got a GED, and has been playing music trying to become famous ever since. But his band mostly ends up in low-end lounges in Baltimore, D.C., Lancaster, York—wherever they can get a gig."

Sara sighed. "I don't know where my manners are," she said dismissing the subject. "I have some of that apple cinnamon loaf you gave me the recipe for. Would you like a slice?"

Caprice wondered if Sara really wanted a snack, or if she wanted to prolong their talk. Caprice checked her watch. She was fine on time.

Sara sliced each of them a piece of the apple cinnamon loaf and they enjoyed that while they talked about the neighbors in the area. When a house cost this much, four to five hundred thousand dollars—and Denise believed that's what it would go for—Caprice liked to be filled in on the neighbors. That was important information to have at the open house when interested parties wanted to know who they'd be living close to.

"If Boyd practices often, that's something we'll have to reveal," Caprice explained to Sara. "You don't want somebody putting a down payment on the house, living here a week, and deciding you didn't disclose something they can't live with."

"I know," Sara responded with a resigned expression. "That's why I hope we can get it worked out. Maybe Chris and Mack can visit Boyd together and help him see reason."

Caprice wasn't sure Boyd was in any mood to see reason.

They were eating their apple loaf and drinking tea, talking about festivities planned in the upcoming weeks for the holidays when notes from Joy To The World came from Sara's pocket. She slipped her phone out, took a look at the screen, and then said to Caprice, "I'd better take this. It's my son-in-law."

But instead of staying at the table and having a genial conversation, Sara stood with a frown creasing her brow and walked into the hall. She wasn't gone long, maybe five minutes, but when she returned Caprice could see she was upset.

"Is something wrong?"

"You know I promote a sense of family. I try to never say anything negative about one family member to another. But sometimes..." Her voice shook a little.

"Sometimes I imagine you need to vent."

"Yes. I just can't vent to the wrong person," Sara murmured.

Caprice waited.

"You could be objective," Sara decided.

"I can try to be."

"You know my daughter Maura."

"I do, though not well. She was older than me so we didn't run into each other in school very much. How is she?"

"She married late about three years ago, and I'll admit Chris and I didn't approve of her choice. Reed Fitzgee is a car salesman and that's fine. But he's been married twice before. Twice. We've tried to be supportive but Reed borrowed money from us about a year after he married Maura to pay credit card debt that had gotten out of hand. To his credit, he did pay it back. But now Maura is pregnant and Reed is asking us for money again to move to a bigger place. He wants us to help with the down payment. Chris has told him no, but Reed wants me to convince Chris otherwise. I told him I can't. The whole thing is upsetting, especially this time of year when I want peace and harmony around the table...when I just want to enjoy the idea of becoming a grandmother."

Caprice felt for Sara and she certainly understood. Her own family had had its ups and downs. Her uncle had been separated from them for a dozen years, although recently he had reunited with them and that was a good thing. But when daughters-in-laws and sons-in-laws were involved and parents didn't like them, that could be very sticky.

Caprice looked down at her engagement ring. Simply glancing at it made her smile. The diamond was a pink heart-shape with pink sapphires and diamonds alternating in a channel setting along both sides. It was the most beautiful ring she had ever seen and Grant Weatherford, her brother's law partner, had picked it out all on his own.

Sara must have seen her looking at the ring. "When are you and Grant getting married?"

"We're not sure. We're waiting for Grant's annulment from his marriage to come through, but we're thinking spring."

"It's a good thing the Pope refined the rules or you could have been waiting a lot longer. Is the annulment process as complicated as before?"

"The complications arise in uprooting all the emotions and asking Grant's ex-wife to fill out a questionnaire too. His ex is willing. Thank goodness, they have an amicable relationship now or this could be much harder."

"I admire you standing up for what you believe in."

"Grant and I decided together that waiting for the annulment is what we want to do. Our faith is important to us and we want to be married in the church."

"Chris and I were once active at St. Francis of Assisi. But that was before he went into the service. After he came back, he wouldn't even go to church. I kept going. Still, the past few years I've felt it's more important to spend time with him than to sit in a pew and listen to a sermon that's not much help in my daily life."

Caprice empathized that some sermons were helpful and others weren't. But she needed the spiritual connection Mass offered with or without a meaningful homily. She said truthfully, "Grant had been away from the church ever since he lost his daughter. But he's slowly come to realize he still needs faith in his life," Caprice admitted.

"We all need faith, hope, and love, especially this time of year," Sara agreed.

© Karen Rose Smith 2016

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