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Something was rotten in the state of Colorado, or more specifically, in this one Crestview neighborhood. Steve Sullivan's utility van, emblazoned "Sullivan Designs," was parked in my clients' driveway.
I pounded the steering wheel with the heel of my hand. "Not again! If he steals another client from me, I'm going to kill him!" I parked my silver van with the name of my business--Interiors by Gilbert--an inch behind Sullivan's bumper. "Gotcha!" Caught like a rat in a trap, Steve wouldn't be able to get out of the driveway without confronting me face-to-face.
I silently repeated my personal mantra: confidence and optimism. My credentials were sterling--an MFA in design from Parsons, a four-year apprenticeship at the D&D Building in Manhattan, and two years of supporting myself through my own up-and-coming business.
The trouble was, Steve Sullivan had been running his home-design business in Crestview for three times as long as I had, and he had three times the number of referrals. Not to mention that the guy had a great eye and a sleek, contemporary style--and no sense of business ethics whatsoever. Not in a million years would I resort to stealing his clients.
But, again: confidence and optimism. I would ring that doorbell, march inside, and convince Carl Henderson that I, Erin Gilbert, was the best designer in town.
My biggest challenge was that Carl Henderson had hired me without ever looking at my plans for his bedroom and professed not to care. His exact wording had been, "What the hell difference does it make what a room you're sleeping in looks like? All rooms look alike once your eyes are closed." Redecorating the bedroom was a "surprise Christmas gift" for his wife, whom he'd sent to a spa for the weekend. The room had to be completed by eight p.m. tomorrow, when Debbie was due to return, and--Carl insisted--the transformation had to be made sans my fabulous team of home-improvement contractors.
I glanced at the upstairs window above the Hendersons' attached garage. The master bedroom that I'd already been hired to redecorate was located there, in the front of the house; the Hendersons had a splendid backdrop of the front range behind their home. This morning the sky was a cloudless sapphire blue. The distant peaks were snowcapped, though there wasn't a speck of snow in the city itself.
The glorious view of the Rocky Mountains was part of the reason I had moved to Crestview two years ago to start my business. I'd also fallen in love with the variety of architecture and sizes of homes. Here I could spend the morning working on a mouthwatering century-old mansion on Maplewood Hill or an adorable eighty-year-old bungalow a few blocks north, and spend the afternoon in a brand-new spacious dwelling in the Cottonwood Creek neighborhood. Crestview was a designer's paradise!
I grabbed the sketches from my folder and strode up the brick walkway to the front porch. My bedroom design for the Hendersons would surpass whatever Sullivan had in mind. Sure, he was energetic, personable, charming--when he wasn't stealing clients or accusing me of naming my business with the sole intention of confusing his referrals. What was I supposed to do? Give up my last name of Gilbert just because there happened to already be a Sullivan Designs in town? In any case, I'd been pretty darned charming myself when working with Carl Henderson, even though my newest client had been surly in return. Carl was only redecorating "to get the missus off my back"--the kind of heartwarming sentimentality that brings a tear to any girl's eye. Carl did not care how good his bedroom design was.
So why was Steve Sullivan here?
During our initial meeting, the tall and angular Carl Henderson had insisted upon paying me a flat fee and stated that "Debbie wouldn't want a whole troop of strangers tromping through our bedroom." He vowed that he and a neighbor would be at my beck and call all weekend, and he'd even hired his stepson from his previous marriage, supposedly a professional carpenter, to make my custom-designed furniture on-site. Relatively on-site, that is. Carl had also said that "sawdust makes my wife's allergies flare up," so the workshop would actually be located across the street, at Randy Axelrod's house--the home of Carl's aforementioned helpful neighbor.
Even now, the name Randy Axelrod struck me as familiar in a worrisome way. In fact, the whole setup had given me a bad feeling that I knew better than to ignore. I'd wanted to postpone the project till after Christmas so that the customized furniture could be made in advance, but Carl had all but pounded on my desk in his refusal. "Debbie is already scheduled for her spa weekend. Taylor can handle whatever furniture you've got in mind." Taylor Duncan was his stepson, the carpenter. Then Carl had frowned and said, "I know this isn't how you're used to working. So I'll throw in another thousand bucks for being such a good sport."
The ka-ching of a cash register in my head drowned out my skepticism when Carl went on to say, "That'll make it more fair anyways, if you're getting paid the same--" He broke off and winced, and his cheeks hit a hue halfway between dusty rose and crimson. When I'd pressed him to continue, he'd babbled about my getting paid "the same as what I told Debbie the room would probably cost us eventually." Now, as I rang the doorbell and glanced back at Sullivan's shiny big van, that cute little cash register jingle in my mind was replaced with a shrill warning siren. What had I gotten myself into this time?
Many of the Hendersons' rooms were definitely in need of a face-lift, especially Debbie's home office. Just by looking at the woman's smiling likeness in the wedding photograph in their den, I'd gotten a sense that she was a nice, likable person, and I wanted to do an especially good job for her. The woman, however, was clearly not a neat freak. Carl could very well have decided to do a second room with a second designer in the same weekend while she was away. And, of all the designers in Crestview, he could have chosen my archrival.
A short, muscular man wearing jeans and a CU sweatshirt swept open the door. I smiled, wondering if this was Randy Axelrod, the helpful neighbor. The guy was certainly too old to be Carl's stepson; like Carl, he looked to be in his late forties. "Hi. My name is Erin Gilbert, and I'm here to--"
"Kevin McBride," he interrupted. Despite my casual, paint-splatter-ready attire, he gave me a slow grin and a visual once-over. His gaze lingered on my chest so long that I wanted to clobber him. "Carl didn't mention how attractive you were."
That sounded like a stale pickup line--perhaps a residue from the man's disco days--but I joked, "Didn't he? Darn! I was so certain that was on the things-to-do list I gave him."
Kevin chuckled and winked at me. "Come on in, Erin. Everyone's in the kitchen." He raked his fingers through his thick, graying hair as he said, "I'm afraid we've played a little trick on you. But I'll let Carl explain." Still eyeing me, he added, "Don't worry."
"Okay," I replied placidly, although in truth, nothing makes me worry quite as much as being told "Don't worry." I knew the Sullivan Designs van in the driveway meant trouble ahead.
Kevin McBride ushered me along a wear-marked path in the tan carpeting--past the living room and dining room and around the corner. Carl Henderson and Steve Sullivan were leaning against a kitchen counter, listening to a third man pontificate about who would "really kick butt" in the Super Bowl. The football expert had an enormous paunch, salt-and-pepper hair, and a white scrub-brush mustache.
I tucked a lock of my wavy auburn hair back into its ponytail. In spite of myself, my vision was drawn to Steve Sullivan, who--because life isn't so fair as to give human weasels beady black eyes and scrawny tails--was really hot. At roughly six feet, he was three or four inches taller than I and a couple of years older--thirty or so. He was wearing a black sweater--cashmere--and black jeans. He had gorgeous hazel eyes and light brown hair, slightly tousled in that arty, I'm-too-cool-to-comb-my-hair way that you just know takes twenty minutes in front of a mirror to arrange. His handsome face froze the moment he spotted me. Meanwhile, the large man beside him continued his football lecture and appeared to be in no hurry to acknowledge my presence.
"This is the other designer," Kevin McBride interrupted. "Have you two met?" He made a palm-out gesture to indicate Steve and me.
"Yes," Steve replied, not bothering to smile. "Our offices are both downtown. Hi, Gilbert."
I nodded. "Sullivan." No one else addressed me by my last name, but then, no one but Steve Sullivan had such a contentious relationship with me.
The overstuffed man gave me an appraising look while he smoothed his Fuller-brush mustache. "Aha. So we meet at last." He rocked on his heels. "Randy Axelrod. And, yes, I'm the Randy Axelrod. I live across the street."
Apparently his name should, indeed, have meant something to me, but it remained elusive--a mere pentimento of the memory banks. I decided to resist joking about being the only Erin Gilbert I knew personally and said simply, "Erin Gilbert. Hi."
Randy Axelrod made no move to shake hands. Instead, he stared into my eyes till I was finally compelled to look away. Kevin McBride was grinning while leering at my body as though he could see right through my black pullover and olive khakis. Although this was his house, Carl Henderson had the skulking, embarrassed demeanor of a man stuck holding his wife's purse in a lingerie department. What on earth was going on with these people?
Steve Sullivan held up his palms. "Before you jump to any conclusions, Gilbert, I'm not invading your turf. I've been hired to design the den for the McBrides, who live two houses down. Kevin left a note on his door telling me to come over here right away. So I'm here."
Carl piped up. "Kevin's wife has been nagging at him, too, about redecorating their house, so we got the idea of doing this as an early Christmas gift . . . sending the two gals off to this spa together and then surprising them. That way we both get this over with in one big crappy weekend."
"And who among us doesn't thoroughly enjoy the occasional big crappy weekend?" I couldn't resist teasing, but with a smile.
"The whole thing was my idea." Randy spoke in the same self-important tones he'd used to talk about football. "See, my wife is friends with their wives, and we three guys decided we might as well ship 'em out together. Then my wife and I were talking, and she's been after me to do something with the family room . . . always telling me to get my treadmill out of there and blah, blah, blah. I figured it'd be more interesting if we turned the whole weekend into a competition. So Carl and me decided to give you both the exact same amount of money to work with and hired the same carpenter, so everything will be fair and square." He chuckled. "Well, not square exactly. More like rectangular. Like your rooms." The man was a real wit.
"A competition?" I asked nonchalantly, keeping to myself the plaintive shriek: With Sullivan? Are you people insane? This arrangement threatened to exceed even the powers of my confidence-and-optimism mantra.
Grinning, Randy crossed his thick arms and rested them on top of his stomach. Judging by his girth, his refrigerator door was getting a lot more action than his exercise equipment. "Yeah. I'm going to be your combination helper slash room-design judge. The winner gets hired to redo my family room . . . sometime next month, maybe. And I'll bring out one of the staff photographers and do a feature story on the winning design." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Maybe even a cover story."
I glanced at Steve's cocksure grin, and the sunlight finally burst through my mental shutters. Oh lord: Randy Axelrod was the editor in chief of Denver Lifestyles--a bimonthly interior design magazine.
Yikes! With no warning, my chic, romantic, decidedly feminine bedroom design had to compete against Steve Sullivan's den, with an influential male judge who kept his treadmill and blah blah blahs in the family room. A bedroom to a den is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Considering that this particular judge all but oozed testosterone, Sullivan's oranges would be hand-plucked, whereas my apples would be bruised and mottled from having fallen off the tree.
"Hope you're up for a friendly challenge, honey," Randy said to me with a wink.
I glanced at my handsome fellow designer, wondering if the man was capable of keeping "friendly" in the equation. Three months ago, while filching the Coopers' job away from me, he'd told Mrs. Cooper that he was mourning the loss of "his partner, Evan." Until then, I'd had the impression that the two men were strictly business partners, and furthermore I'd heard from more than one source that Evan was very much alive and had merely moved away. That conniving Sullivan had fed the Coopers a sob story to win them over and get the job. But that was all water under the bridge now. Fetid water, granted, but nevertheless located under the proverbial--albeit rickety--bridge.
Randy gave Sullivan's shoulder a playful jab, which the evil side of my nature hoped was painful. Randy should have planted his feet better. And swung at Sullivan's perfectly proportioned jaw. "Hey, Steve, Erin," Randy said. "You know what? With names like Gilbert and Sullivan, you two should form a team. I'm sure your styles would be in perfect harmony. So to speak." He laughed heartily.
"If we did become partners, it would have to be Sullivan and Gilbert," Steve said. "With a capital S and a lowercase G."
"Age before beauty, Sullivan," I fired back, and silently called him every four-letter word in the book; I could rename his business easily enough. He normally wasn't this hostile to me. The prize of a feature story was obviously bringing out the worst in him. Granted, I, too, would kill to get Denver Lifestyles' publicity for my business--but I would much rather kill with kindness. I gave him an angelic smile, secretly hoping that the incredible weight of his ego would cause his head to implode.
The doorbell rang. "Aha. That will be our carpenter, Taylor Duncan," Randy announced as he headed toward the door. "You two will share his services."