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Silence of the Lamps
By Karen Rose Smith
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Karen Rose Smith
All rights reserved.
Caprice De Luca caught sight of the guest who stepped over the threshold. She braced for trouble on this balmy June Saturday afternoon.
Spinning on her kitten heels, her long, straight brown hair flowing over her shoulder, she rushed to the living room of the 4,000-square-foot house. She'd staged the stone and stucco home with the theme of French Country Flair. Bringing the rustic country flavor from the outside in, she'd used the colors of lavender and green, rust and yellow, mixing them for inviting warmth. Carved curved legs on the furniture, upholstered in toile with its pastoral scenes, mixed with the gray distressed wood side tables.
Prospective buyers who entered should have been screened by real estate agents. So how had Drew Pierson ended up standing in the foyer of today's open house?
The chef was her sister Nikki's archenemy. Ever since he'd opened Portable Edibles, a catering company that competed with Nikki's Catered Capers, the two of them had been in a battle to make their businesses succeed.
Just why was he here?
Caprice hurried to the dining room with its wall-length, whitewashed wood hutch, rushed past the table with its pale blue tablecloth and white, gently scalloped stoneware dinnerware, and headed for the scents emanating from the grand kitchen. She hardly noticed the still lifes of flowers that she'd arranged on the walls.
The floor of the kitchen mimicked rustic brick, reflecting the colors in the floor-to-ceiling fireplace. Blue-and-rust plaid cushions graced the chairs in the bay-windowed breakfast nook. Two-toned cupboards — white on top, dark cherry on the bottom — along with copper pots hanging over the granite island made the space inviting for cooking or family-centered activities.
Nikki and her servers had almost finished readying the chafing dishes and serving platters in the state-of-the-art kitchen. The combination of Nikki's culinary skills and Caprice's staging talent would pull in prospective buyers. More often than not, houses sold quickly because of their efforts, and the real estate agent on board made a hefty profit. The luxury broker today was Denise Langford, and Caprice wondered if Drew Pierson knew her and that's how he'd added his name to her list.
While one server poured vin d'orange into crystal glasses, another took a cheese soufflé from the double oven. Nikki's assistant was stirring soupe au pistou — a thick vegetable soup with vermicelli — while a platter of pan bagnat hors d'oeuvres, which were basically tuna, tomato, green pepper, olive, and sliced hard-boiled egg sandwiches, rested beside her.
Since Caprice had gone over the menu carefully with Nikki, she knew other chafing dishes held blanquette de veau — veal in white sauce with carrots, leeks, onions, and cloves — and poulet basquaise, which was pan-fried chicken dipped in pepper sauce. Nikki was stirring the boeuf bourguignon. The braised beef cooked in wine with carrots and potatoes and garnished with bacon smelled wonderful.
Nikki was so intent on stirring the dish in front of her that she didn't see Caprice approach. Caprice was about to warn her that Drew Pierson had arrived when he appeared beside Caprice, looking over the food to be offered to interested house buyers.
"I thought I'd stop by and see what my competition was offering today," he said smoothly.
At the sound of Drew's voice, Nikki's head snapped up, her eyes widened, and she frowned.
"You're thinking of buying a French country bungalow?" Caprice asked, giving her sister time to compose herself.
"I told Denise Langford I wouldn't mind having a look at this place," he answered.
This "place" was definitely out of Drew's budget, since he was a fledgling business owner. Portable Edibles couldn't be making that much money yet.
Drew ignored Caprice and stared down at the boeuf bourguignon, sniffed it, then smiled at Nikki. "Anyone can make boeuf bourguignon, but I see you added bacon. Nice touch."
"Don't think I'm going to serve you any of my food," Nikki responded, her tone kept in tight restraint. "If it were up to me, I'd have you removed from the property."
Drew, his handsome face producing a fake smile, clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Your envy is showing. I guess you heard I'll be catering the exclusive fund-raising dinner at the Country Squire Golf and Recreation Club. My bid came in lower than yours."
Caprice had to wonder about that conclusion. Nikki's bids were more than competitive. It was quite possible that someone on the selection committee for the dinner had favored Drew. She could read her sister well, and she saw that Nikki was thinking the same thing.
"Just because you won that job doesn't mean your food will win the taste test," Nikki offered. "I have a growing client base. Do you? I have repeat customers. Do you?"
"Your social media following is pitiful," he responded with bitterness, and Caprice wondered where that bitterness was coming from. What had Nikki ever done to Drew? They'd actually worked well together when she'd first hired him to assist her on a few catering jobs. It was after she'd turned him down as a partner that their relationship had fallen apart.
"I believe in growing my business one happy customer at a time," Nikki returned. "My followings will grow. The way ten thousand followers suddenly flowed into your Twitter stream, I suspect you bought them. How loyal do you think they're going to be?"
Everyone in the vicinity was listening and watching now, and Caprice knew the sparring match between Nikki and Drew would only escalate.
Caprice leaned a little closer to him. "We'll serve you if you want so you can sample Nikki's food to see exactly how delicious it is. But I don't think you want a scene here any more than she does. That could be bad for business, and business is what you're all about, isn't it?"
She didn't know what had made her throw that question in. But when she saw the look on Drew's face, she understood this wasn't just about business. There was something personal underlying his rancor for Nikki. Still, she must have gotten through to him.
He took a step back from the food and her sister. "Good luck, Nikki. You're going to need it, because I'm going to cut your business off at the knees."
After that shot, he turned and headed for the front door.
Everyone around Nikki went back to what they'd been doing and pretended they hadn't heard anything. But Nikki knew better and she looked upset.
"I knew you two were competing, but I didn't realize he nursed a vendetta against you. What gives?" Caprice asked.
Nikki lowered her voice. "It's more than professional. You're right. He made a pass at me before I turned him down as a partner. I had already turned him down as a love interest. I think that rejection really bothered him. Rejected by me both ways, he decided to try to wipe out my business. But he can't. My food's better than his. He's an efficient cook and he'll do fine at catering, but I don't think he has the creative spark to make his dishes really special. I'm determined to show him up next Sunday."
"What's next Sunday?" Caprice asked, thinking about her schedule.
"It's the wedding expo. Area bakeries, caterers, photographers, dress shops, and flower stores are going to be showing their wares. I'll have sample menus for couples planning their wedding and food they can taste. Drew will too. But mine's going to be better."
Of course it was. Nicoletta De Luca could rise to any challenge. Couldn't she?
* * *
Caprice sat with her sister Bella on a bench in the front yard of their childhood home the following evening, eating a slice of cake. The weather couldn't have been more perfect as dusk shadowed the lawn.
"You outdid yourself with the coconut cake this time, and the fluffy icing is wonderful. I don't think I have your recipe. You're going to have to e-mail it to me."
"I know coconut cake is Mom's favorite and she doesn't make it much for herself because Dad would rather have chocolate. Just like Joe and the kids. No palate at all."
Caprice laughed. Her sister Bella was nothing but blunt. With her curly black hair, sparkling brown eyes, and heart-shaped face, she'd always been a beauty. She was two years younger than Caprice but usually felt she knew best and never hesitated to give advice. She was the married sibling, and with a husband, three kids, a part-time job, and a burgeoning online business making costumes and christening outfits for kids, she was one busy lady.
"We have a house showing tomorrow night. Keep your fingers crossed," Bella pleaded.
When Bella and Joe had decided to sell their home and look for something to fit their growing family, Caprice had staged the home for them.
"I'll do better than crossing my fingers. I'll visualize the right couple finding your house."
After a few moments of comfortable sister silence, Bella nudged Caprice's arm. "Look at Mom with Benny."
Their mom sat on a lawn chair under a red maple, holding Bella's five-month-old son. Caprice could see he was almost asleep.
"Since Megan and Timmy are out of school," Bella explained, "I'm working only evenings at All About You. That way Joe can stay with the kids on those nights. Mom said she'd come over a few mornings and babysit Benny to give me time to sew costumes and christening outfits. I'm keeping up with the orders as long as I have blocks of time at the machine."
Bella's costume business was taking off. At some point, she might stop working at All About You, a dress shop that Caprice's best friend, Roz Winslow, owned. With her degree in fashion design, Bella worked there part-time, and it was a good fit for now. Roz was dating Caprice's brother, Vince, and Caprice didn't see either of them in the front yard. That didn't surprise her. They might have snuck around back to make out. Never too old to steal a few kisses.
Her gaze targeted Grant Weatherford, who was tossing a soccer ball to five-year-old Megan and nine-year-old Timmy, Bella's older children. Her heart did a little flip-flop when he caught her eye and smiled in that way he had of making her feel special. They'd been dating for about two months and, in spite of herself, she was dreaming about a future with him.
Suddenly Caprice's cocker spaniel, Lady, came running up to her, wound around her leg, and then settled on her foot. Patches was Grant's cocker, not golden like Lady but with patches of brown and white in a curlier coat. He scampered over too, followed by Caprice's uncle Dom. Her uncle had experienced a divorce and a financial downturn and was living with her parents temporarily until he got back on his feet. He and her family had had their differences, but he seemed to be at peace with them now, especially with Nana, her paternal grandmother, who was sitting on the porch in the shade talking to Nikki and watching them all.
Her uncle Dom, her dad's younger brother, grinned down at her. "A man doesn't need to go to a gym when he has dogs to chase."
Patches sniffed at Bella's white sneaker. She moved her foot and then got to her feet. "I'll let you enjoy your hairy companions."
Bella tolerated animals, but she wasn't a lover of them like Caprice, Grant, and her uncle.
Uncle Dom pushed his tortoiseshell-framed oval glasses higher on his nose and lowered himself onto the bench, stooping down to rub Patches's ear. She knew the dog liked to be scratched there, and apparently her uncle had discovered that too.
"How's the job hunt?" she asked him.
He grimaced. "I have two interviews lined up, one with a bank and another with an insurance agency. I never thought I'd be an insurance salesman, but it's something people need."
Her uncle had worked for a large financial agency that had collapsed with the economic downturn. He was having trouble finding a job in that sector. Even if he could, she wasn't sure he was enthusiastic about it. He definitely wasn't enthusiastic about becoming an insurance salesman.
"Tell me something, Uncle Dom. What do you love to do? What have you always wanted to do?" She was a big believer in putting your heart in your work for your life path to be a success. Bella was doing that with her online costume-making business, and orders were pouring in. Caprice had done that when she'd turned from interior decorating to house staging for high-end clients. She'd needed to turn something she loved into a business that would work in the present economy. Nikki invested her heart in her cooking. Her mom threw her heart into her teaching. Her dad, a mason, had put his life into building structures he could be proud of. She knew Vince and Grant cared about their clients in their law partnership. Yep, to be a success, you had to do what you loved to do.
Her uncle thought about her question for a moment, then motioned to Patches and Lady. "I've always wanted to tend to animals. Being around Lady and your cats has brought that home again. But I'm a little old to be a veterinarian."
"You're never too old if that's what you want to do. But you could tend to animals in another way."
"And that is?" he asked with a raised brow.
"Have you ever thought about being a pet sitter? I use one at times, and I have clients who would like to have their pets taken care of in their homes. They can't find someone to do it. To really make it a business, you'd have to be bonded and insured. But that's possible, isn't it?"
Her uncle studied the dogs again, patted Patches at his feet, and then nodded. "I never thought about pet sitting. But, you know, I think I'd like it."
"I can give you the name of the pet sitter I use who lives in York, if you'd like to interview her. That might give you an idea of whether you want to do it or not. Do you have your phone on you? I can give you her number."
After her uncle took out his phone and entered the number, Grant approached them. He nodded to her uncle. "Thanks for giving the dogs a run."
"Anytime," her uncle responded, rising to his feet. He gave Caprice's arm a squeeze. "Thanks for your idea. I'll let you know what I decide."
Once her uncle had moved off and joined her dad and Bella's husband, Joe, in conversation, Grant asked, "Are you ready to leave? We could go back to your place for a while."
There was a look in his eyes that told her he wanted to be someplace private with her. Maybe they'd have a make-out session of their own.
* * *
An hour later, Caprice brought tall glasses of iced tea into her living room. Grant stood at the floor-to-ceiling, turquoise-carpeted cat tree. As he petted her white Persian named Mirabelle, who was on a lower shelf, he studied Sophia, her long-haired calico, who was on the top shelf.
He said to Sophia, "I'm glad to see you two are getting along now." He glanced at Caprice. "Do they still squabble?"
"Now and then. Mostly if Mirabelle wants to be friendly and Sophia doesn't want to be bothered. But considering Mirabelle's been here only two and a half months, they're doing well."
She nodded to Lady and Patches, who were gnawing on toys near the sofa. "Mirabelle still stays out of Lady's way, but she doesn't seem scared of her anymore. And look at her. She doesn't even mind Patches being here."
Grant came to join Caprice on the sofa. It was striped in purple and lime and fuchsia to complement the sixties decor, including a lava lamp.
As he sat beside her — very close beside her — she took a sip of tea and then placed the sweating glass on the mosaic-topped coffee table. She hadn't turned the air on because the night breeze floated in the open windows.
"Dinner at your mom and dad's is always like a family reunion," he mused.
"That's why we do it once a month, whether there's a special occasion or not. Everybody enjoys going all-out — Nikki's antipasto, Nana's ravioli, Bella's lima bean casserole and cake, my bread, Vince's choice of wine."
"The weather was perfect for the kids to play outside afterward."
Kids were sometimes a sore subject with Grant, though he tried not to let it show. He'd experienced a tragedy in his past. His daughter had drowned, and his marriage had broken up because of it. When he'd moved to Kismet to join her brother's law practice — she and her family had gotten to know him when he'd been her brother's college roommate — he'd started a new life. Yet he really hadn't been ready to move on. It had been only in the past few months that Caprice had felt he was putting the past behind him ... or not regretting it as much.
"Megan and Timmy can be a handful," she agreed. "It's great when they can be outdoors to release some of that energy. Just wait until Benny joins in the fray."
Apparently wanting to leave the subject of children, Grant changed the direction of their conversation. "Last night at Grocery Fresh, I ran into a client who'd stopped in at your open house."
Excerpted from Silence of the Lamps by Karen Rose Smith. Copyright © 2016 Karen Rose Smith. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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