Caprice De Luca's cocker spaniel bounded up the wide staircase, keeping close 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 the glitz, glamour, and glare in order to reconnect with his twelve-year-old daughter. Her mother enjoyed sole custody, so Trista spent the odd weekend with him.
Caprice wondered who was with Ace. He'd said, “
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
room. The previous owner had stored expensive artwork 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 for 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, Caprice still liked to give the pup something extra every now and then.
“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
alone; a blond woman stood there. Her shoulder-length, perfectly coifed, waved hair and her jeweled necklace and earrings screamed,
Lots of money here!
Her perfectly matched cranberry-colored sweater and slacks, evidently bought from a designer rack, shouted,
Manolo Blahnik shoes accentuated her long legs.
Although Caprice knew fashion, she indulged in her own fashion sense, mostly wearing vintage and retro styles. 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, a crocheted yellow vest, and her platform boots. 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, patting 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 adopted another one of the pups in the litter that Caprice had delivered and named her Brindle.
The blonde 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 blonde.
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. If it weren't for her staging, I never would have bought this place.”
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 before Christmas 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 Caprice's 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? She was booked up at the moment. When the economy had taken a downturn and her home-decorating business had hit a snag, she'd transformed her business into a unique staging service with high-end customers, and the endeavor had been successful. However, she never turned business away.
“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, which included leading a teenager onto the right track in life. Ace was a good guy under the razzmatazz 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 Caprice 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, Alanna 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 estate, 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 fireâLady on the floor beside her and her cat, Sophia, on the afghan on the back of the sofaâas 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, residing in a 1950s 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
as she took the last turn leading to Alanna's house. She drove her work van more than she used to, so when she had Lady along, 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. The pup's training was going well. 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 so. For more than an hour, she used pet gates at the kitchen doorways. Lady and Sophia were buddies now, so no worries there. Toys that released food crunchies when batted about 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
. Still ... Alanna and Ace? They just didn't seem to fit together quite right.
Alanna's home resembled a plantation mansion. Tall white pillars, which had given the estate its name, surrounded two sides of the house. Along the east side of the mansion stretched a screened-in veranda, which Caprice imagined might also extend 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 a historical showplace.
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 that the Beatles had worn 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 blended with traditional appeal. In the foyer, a crystal chandelier with 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 paintings of landscapes decorated the walls in the living room. She was pretty sure the mid-nineteenth-century antiques were
reproductions, especially the pine safe with its punched tin panels depicting antebellum mansions. High-backed, floral-upholstery-trimmed chairs in dark wood complemented two velvet settees. But those settees gave the room an overly heavy, unwelcoming mood.
As Caprice stepped into the dining room, admiring the dark wood table and 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.”
Declawedâso 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 Mirabelle 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, which 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. Too many furniture pieces made the room look cluttered.
As Caprice toured 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.