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Authors: Leslie Caine

false premises

Table of Contents

Title Page
Dedication
Praise
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
About the Author
MANOR OF DEATH
MANOR OF DEATH Coming in Spring 2006
Copyright Page

PRAISE FOR LESLIE CAINE’S DEBUT NOVEL IN THE DOMESTIC BLISS MYSTERY SERIES

DEATH BY INFERIOR DESIGN

“[An] appealing heroine and warm, genuinely winning voice.”—
Publishers Weekly

“Sparkles with charm, design lore, and a sleuth with a great mantra. Cozy fans will embrace the Domestic Bliss series.”

—Carolyn G. Hart, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards winner

“Leslie Caine deftly merges hate-fueled homicide with household hints in her ‘how-to/whodunit’ mystery.”

—Mary Daheim

“Witty and smart, with home decorating tips to die for!”

—Sarah Graves


Trading Spaces
meets
Murder, She Wrote
! Talk about extreme makeovers! Dueling designers Gilbert and Sullivan might want to kill each other, but no one expected anyone to try it. Who will hang the trendiest curtains? Who will choose the poshest paint? Who will come out alive? I’m not tellin’.”—Parnell Hall

“Interior designer–sleuth Erin Gilbert is wonderfully appealing and reading all the lovely details of her latest decorating job will make you feel like you’ve stumbled across the deadly side of HGTV.”

—Jerrilyn Farmer, bestselling author of the Madeline Bean mysteries

“An elegant and witty mystery that satisfies in every way. A surefire winner!”—Tamar Myers, author of
Statue of Limitations

“What a delight! A mystery within a mystery, a winning heroine, a yummy love interest, some laugh-out-loud lines . . . and as if that weren’t enough, some terrifically useful decorating tips.”—Cynthia Baxter, author of
Lead a Horse to Murder

“Mystery lovers who love
Trading Spaces
will adore
Death by Inferior Design,
a tale of dueling designers. In this stylish debut, Leslie Caine paints a winsome heroine with family woes, furnishes a well-upholstered murder, and accessorizes with well-patterned wit and a finishing touch of romance. Open the door, step inside, and enjoy!”—Deborah Donnelly, author of
Death Takes a Honeymoon

For Maggie Leach

Chapter 1

For the second time in the past thirty minutes of our “girls’ night out,” the waitress arrived bearing drinks that Laura Smith and I hadn’t ordered and didn’t want. Within those same thirty minutes, we’d also been approached by two less-than-sober men asking if we were sisters. With Laura’s drop-dead-gorgeous looks, that question was, at least, flattering to me, and, thankfully, Laura hadn’t paled in horror. However, this latest drink offer was an unwanted interruption of a serious conversation.

Laura frowned slightly and asked the waitress, “Are these from the same guy as the last time?”

The baby-faced waitress, who had to be at least twenty-one in order to work in a bar in Colorado but looked all of fifteen, indicated with a jerk of her chin that the drink buyer was seated behind her at the brushed-aluminum bar. “Nope. A new one. And he has a buddy.” She cocked her eyebrow and grinned. “They’re both kind of cute, I gotta say.”

Without so much as a curious glance in the men’s direction, Laura replied, “Please tell them thanks, but no thanks . . . and that we’re lesbians.”

I hid my smile. The girl gave a slight nervous laugh, as if unsure of whether or not Laura was serious, murmured, “All righty, then,” and turned away.

Laura and I were no more lesbians than we were sisters—just friends grabbing a quick bite and a glass of wine before we dashed off to hear a talk on home décor. After a dry spell, I had a new man in my life; and Laura was living with Dave Holland, a bespectacled, thirty-something man with a weak chin. Judging from the fortune that Dave had amassed, he must resemble Bill Gates in more ways than just physically. I’d met Dave and Laura nearly five months ago when Laura had hired me to decorate their gorgeous home in the foothills of the Rockies.

Come to think of it, my occupational habit of scanning my surroundings might have given the impression that I was scouting for men. In actuality, I’d merely been admiring the color scheme. The tomato-red wall behind the bar completed an eye-catching gradual transition from the lemon yellow of the opposite wall, through luscious hues of peach, apricot, orange, and pumpkin.

Laura leaned closer. “Getting back to our conversation, Erin, this was your
adoptive
mother who died, right?”

“Right. Just over two years ago from a congenital lung disease. How long ago did
your
mother pass away?” I asked.

“Fifteen years ago.”

Because we were the same age, my mental math was automatic, and I cried, “So you were just twelve at the time. How awful!”

Laura merely nodded, so I continued, “She must have been fairly young. What happened to her? Was it a car accident?”

Laura turned away slightly and shook her head. She adjusted her Hermès silk scarf infinitesimally, drained the last of her Chablis, then answered quietly, “Murder.”

I fought back a shudder. “She was
murdered
? My God.”

Laura kept her eyes averted, but pain flickered across her face. “By my father. He killed my little brother, too. Then he took his own life.”

“Good Lord. That’s horrible! I’m so sorry.” Reaching for the only possible positive spin, I said, “Thank God
you
were all right, though.”

She gave me a sad smile and didn’t respond. Then, in a near whisper, she said something that sounded like “I’m a slow bleeder.”

“Pardon?”

She hooked a manicured finger in the knot of her gold and indigo scarf, slowly untied it, and revealed a pinkish-white line of skin that ran across the base of her neck. The puckered suture scars were also visible.

Her throat had once been slit.

A chill ran up my spine. In that instant, I vowed never again to feel sorry for myself and my lonely and, at times, difficult childhood. My heart ached at the unfathomable pain and horror that she’d somehow endured.

“Oh, my God,” I murmured. “Laura, I’m so sorry.”

In the light of her personal history, I was all the more impressed at how warm and welcoming she’d been to me from day one, when she’d hired me as her interior designer. Since that time, Laura had become more of a personal friend than a client. She’d been remarkably knowledgeable as we’d selected the million dollars’ worth of antiques for her home. And yet, several weeks ago when she’d suggested that we go “bargain hunting” at a Denver flea market, she’d been every bit as comfortable and in her element while dickering over the asking price of a stained porcelain teacup as she was while selecting a handcrafted seventeenth-century armoire.

Now I understood the origin of the depth that I’d sensed in her and had found so compelling—the occasional sadness that passed over her features during quiet moments. She seemed to be unaware and unaffected by all the heads that turned her way whenever she walked by, and she noticed and found joy in the same details that I did—in the beauty of the sunlight catching an aubergine glass vase, the hue of purple-heart wood, the softness of the finest chenille, the amazing artistry and craftsmanship of Scalamandré wallpaper.

With her eyes downcast and the color rising in her cheeks, she retied her scarf.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” I asked impulsively, all the while thinking that if she said yes, I might have to signal the waitress and say that I’d changed my mind about accepting those drinks.

Laura sighed and fidgeted with a lock of her shoulder-length brown hair, a slight tremor in her fingers. “No, but thank you. Talking about it only brings back all those memories I try so hard to forget.” She put her hand on top of mine on the table and, with forced gaiety, said, “Let’s never mention it again, all right?”

“Of course.”

She glanced at her watch. “Oh, shoot! We’re late for your landlady’s presentation!” She hopped to her feet and briefly insisted on leaving an overly generous tip, until she accepted my reminder that this evening was completely “my treat.” The waitress benefited from Laura’s and my exchange; I now felt compelled to give her the same oversized tip.

“Actually, there’s no rush,” I told Laura as we left. “I’ve been to a couple of these events before, and Audrey’s always too busy signing autographs and chatting with her legions of fans to begin on time.”

Audrey, my landlady, hosted a local television show three mornings a week entitled
Domestic Bliss with
Audrey Munroe.
The name of her Martha Stewart–like show was more than a little ironic. Having shared Audrey’s mansion on Maplewood Avenue for nearly six months now, I knew her to be indefatigable, irrepressible, and endlessly entertaining—but her domestic life was far from blissful. She allowed me to live there rent free, in exchange for the never-ending task of helping her to redecorate her home, which she did on frequent and breathtakingly rapid whims. (It took three months until she finally realized that it had been a mistake to turn the one bathtub in the house into a terrarium.) A former ballerina with the New York City Ballet, she was now in her mid-sixties, although she’d recently had a birthday and had informed me that she’d decided to welcome her birthdays by “awarding myself negative numbers every year from here on out.” I’d remarked that some thirty years from now she was going to be a very old-looking thirty-five-year-old, indeed. She merely replied, with an index finger aloft, “But a wise one!”

It was a beautiful mid-April evening, and the crisp air lifted my spirits, and I didn’t mind that the gentle breeze occasionally blew my auburn hair into my eyes. The sky was a rich indigo hue. The slightly deeper violet shapes of the mountains were just barely discernible in the distance. We meandered along the brick-paved pedestrian mall, window-shopping as we made the short journey to Paprika’s. My relaxed mood evaporated when I realized that we were being followed: a bearded and dreadlocked man in Birkenstocks, grungy blue jeans, and a wrinkled, once-white long-sleeved shirt and sheepskin vest had left Rusty’s Bar and Grill just moments after we had. Now he lingered behind us, matching our pace stride for stride.

In mock secret agent tones, I said to Laura, “Psst. Don’t look now, but someone’s close on our tail.”

She immediately looked back. The man turned away as if waiting for someone to catch up to him.

“I wonder if that’s our would-be drink purchaser, who now thinks we’re lovers.”

She laughed. “Oh, God. I hope not. I might have to ask you to kiss me.” She again glanced back as we continued on our way. “Although by the looks of him, he’d probably be turned on.”

“Oh, he looks harmless enough to me . . . though he’s sure not your typical Rusty’s patron.” Rusty’s had become the latest hot spot in Crestview; our midsize college town seemed especially prone to trendy hot spots.

“True. And he
really
doesn’t look like the crystalstemware, copper-pot type, so I’m sure we’ll lose him when we go into Paprika’s.” She added as if in afterthought, “Not that I could blame him for not wanting to go inside. The personnel there isn’t up to snuff.”

“What makes you say that? I
love
the staff at Paprika’s.”

She gave me a warm smile as she opened the door for me. “That’s only because
you
love everyone, Erin.”

The man followed us inside the upscale kitchen store. Annoyed and slightly disconcerted, I whispered to Laura, “I’m going to confront him and ask why he’s following us.”

She touched my arm. “Let’s just ignore him, okay?”

In the center of the first floor of the store, merchandise displays had been removed or shoved aside, and in their place, folding chairs had been set up to face the table where the illustrious Audrey Munroe was about to hold court. Only three chairs were empty, in the far corner of the two front rows. Audrey really had her fan club. As an interior designer, I too had been featured at a couple of these special “evening presentations,” but hadn’t drawn one quarter of this crowd.

We rounded the seats toward the two available chairs in the front row. From the back of the makeshift auditorium, Audrey was currently entertaining a large percentage of the customers, who were craning their necks to listen in as she joked with an elderly couple. She was wearing a chic two-piece black dress, perfectly tailored to flatter her trim, petite frame. She gave me a little wave. Beside her was Hannah Garrison, the manager of Paprika’s. I could tell by Hannah’s plastered-on smile that she’d been trying in vain to urge Audrey forward to begin her talk.

Hannah spotted me, grinned, and started to head over to say hello. But her smile faded midstep and mutated into a glare when she saw my companion. Puzzled, I glanced over my shoulder at Laura and caught her eyeing Hannah with a haughty smirk. Her expression seemed odd; I’d never seen Laura act the least bit haughty. Apparently Laura’s dislike for the “personnel” included the store manager—and was mutual.

Hannah hesitated for a moment but soon joined us. She, like Laura and I, was in her late twenties. Tonight Hannah wore an ill-fitting skirt suit that wasn’t flattering to her stubby, buxom frame. “Thank you so much for coming, Erin. It’s always so great to see you.” Her body English hinted that she was trying hard to ignore Laura’s presence on the other side of me.

The implication that it was
never
great for Hannah to see Laura hung in the air. I replied, “Likewise, Hannah. I love to come here.”

“How are you, Hannah?” Laura asked pleasantly.

Although Hannah’s smile was clearly forced, she replied, “Fine, Laura. And you?”

“Things couldn’t be better. Thanks for asking.”

As if it were a facial tic, Hannah’s lip curled for just a split second, then she shifted her gaze to me. Hannah’s arms were folded tightly across her chest, and Laura still wore the Cheshire cat grin. The tension was so palpable that I babbled, “You’ve got quite the crowd here tonight.”

“Yes, we do,” Hannah replied in hushed tones, “which is really good timing, because we’ve had a bit of trouble lately.”

“Oh?”

“Paprika’s has managed to become the target of a . . .” Her voice faded as she caught sight of the new patron in the second row, directly behind us. The bearded, scruffy man who’d followed us from the bar was apparently having some trouble getting comfortable. The front leg of his folding chair was missing its inch-tall base.

Hannah grimaced and said under her breath to us, “Speak of the devil.” While Laura and I took our front-row seats, Hannah rounded our row and I heard her say quietly, “Please, sir. Not tonight. It isn’t fair to Ms. Munroe, and there’s no way she’s going to mention you or your cause on her television show, no matter
how
big a scene you throw.”

“Huh?” he muttered.

“Tell you what,” Hannah said. Her tone had become patronizing. “Why don’t you come to my office first thing tomorrow morning? You can air all of your grievances regarding Paprika’s merchandise to me personally at that time.”

Dreadlocks harrumphed and, again, seemed to deliberately turn his face when he felt Laura’s gaze on him. “You don’t
sell
these crappy chairs here, do you? ’Cuz someone’s likely to fall off of one and break their neck.”

“I’d be happy to get you a better chair, sir, in exchange for your promise that you’ll listen quietly to the presentation. Please, just for tonight, keep your personal opinions about how we Americans should spend our money to yourself. Okay? Would that be too much to ask?”

I cleared my throat, hoping that I could catch Hannah’s eye. She might want to let this all slide. The attention of the sixty or so people had shifted from Audrey to Hannah and Dreadlocks’ conversation, which, to my mind, was defeating her purpose.


Look
at this!” As if to demonstrate his concern about the chair, he wobbled from side to side, the chair legs clanging against the tile floor. “This chair’s totally
useless.
” He then hopped to his feet and bent down to examine the offending leg.

As he leaned over, the back of his shirt lifted a little, and I caught sight of an object tucked into his waistline. I stared in alarm as the man continued, “See? Here’s the problem,” he groused. “This one’s busted.”

Cupping my hand over my mouth so that only Laura could hear, I whispered, “Look! The guy’s got a gun!”

Laura sprang to her feet. The sudden motion caught Dreadlocks’ eye; he turned, and the two stared at each other. Laura gasped, then she yelled, “Get a grip on yourself! Stop hassling the poor woman! She made a perfectly reasonable request that you speak to her tomorrow!”

Why on earth was Laura so aggressive to an
armed
man? I shot a pleading look at Audrey, who cried, “Goodness! Look at the time!” and rushed forward. “Let’s all take our seats—” With a nod to the still-standing dreadlocked man, she added, “Such as they are, and we’ll begin talking about table settings.”

As much as I wanted to set the tone by facing forward in my seat, Laura maintained her attempt to stare down the armed man. I stood up beside her. She and I had to get out of here right now; Dreadlocks wouldn’t dare follow us with this many witnesses.

“Here,” I said, offering him my chair. “Why don’t you take this one, and—”

“You need to get out of here,” Laura snarled at him. Her eyes were blazing. “Now!”

“Take it easy, miss. I’m just minding my own business, trying to learn about table settings. If
someone
could just
get
me a
freakin’
chair with four legs the same length, you
won’t
hear another—”

He made a broad gesture and accidentally smacked Hannah in the chest. She gasped and stepped back.

Laura cried, “That does it!” She kicked her seat aside, grabbed the man’s arm, and, in one swift motion, flipped him onto the floor, nearly upsetting a display of cutlery in the process.

The store patrons gasped and shrieked, riveted. I couldn’t help but stare. The man’s hair had shifted. As if merely checking his skull for injuries, he grabbed his head with both hands to center his wig. He struggled to his feet, and the weapon fell from his belt. A middle-aged woman in the seat next to his shrilled, “Oh, my God! He’s got a gun!”

Everyone began to clamber to their feet. Already racing for the exit, Laura whipped out her cell phone and cried over her shoulder, “I’m calling the police! I’ll be right back with them!”

Audrey’s crowd also started to head for the exit. The man stuffed the gun into the back of his pants and shouted over the pandemonium, “Wait! It’s okay, everyone! I’m an undercover cop!”

His words had an eye-of-the-hurricane effect on the crowd. The frantic commotion gradually quieted a little, and the two women closest to the exit hesitated and looked back at him tentatively.

“Ladies. Please! As an officer of the law, I have no intention of firing my gun, I assure you, and I’m not even on duty tonight.” His voice was authoritative, even as he made placating gestures. “If everyone could please just take their seats . . .” He kept repeating this request, and eventually the edgy patrons began to shuffle back toward the chairs. The man glanced at Audrey. “Real sorry, ma’am. I’ll get out of everyone’s hair now.” He left in the same direction that Laura had gone.

Audrey cleared her throat briskly and rang a small brass bell. “I hope everyone enjoyed my preshow entertainment, provided to you courtesy of the Free-for-All Players of Piedmont, Colorado. Be sure to check your local papers for their next performance. I hear their
Instant Shakespeare
is especially enjoyable. But right now, it’s time to talk table settings.”

Everyone chuckled with relief and began to reclaim their seats in earnest. There was no way I could simply sit down and listen to Audrey’s presentation. Much as I wanted to believe that the wig-wearing man was truly a police officer, he hadn’t shown his badge, he’d called attention to himself despite claiming to be undercover, and he was following Laura again.

I started to make my way toward the exit, past Hannah. She grabbed my elbow. “Erin. Are you all right?”

“Fine. But I’d better go check on my friend. Even though she’s probably already on her way back here with a uniformed officer.”

Hannah clicked her tongue and grumbled, “You obviously don’t know Laura very well. There’s no way she’s coming back, let alone with a cop.” She turned on her heel and stepped beside Audrey to introduce her to the audience.

I mouthed “Sorry” to Audrey and left. I trotted in the same direction Laura had headed and circled the entire pedestrian mall twice. Laura had vanished, as had the “undercover cop.”

Worry niggled at me the next morning as I made the
drive west toward Laura’s sprawling mountain house, so I repeated to myself my personal mantra—confidence and optimism—which helped me to calm my nerves. Although I’d phoned Laura twice last night and left messages both times to “please call me back regardless of the hour,” she hadn’t returned my calls, and there’d been no answer when I tried again just an hour ago. If no one was home now, I decided, I could at least leave a note on the door.

I parked in the driveway of the two-story house, which, with its formidable white columns and arched windows, had a grand,
Gone with the Wind
aura despite its stucco exterior and mountain setting. I rang the doorbell and glanced around as I waited on the porch. The flowers were starting to bloom, after a late start. The climate in the mountains tends to delay Colorado’s lower-elevation growing season by a good month or so.

Laura’s boyfriend answered the door. Dave Holland had a case of bed head—the hair on the back of his head stuck straight up in the air like the flag on a mailbox—and he wasn’t wearing his thick glasses. He gave me a goofy grin and queried cautiously, “Erin?”

“Yes. Hi, Dave.”

“Well. Hello there. Long time no see.”

“How’ve you been, Dave?”

“Good. Just got back from a long business trip to Atlanta late last night.”

“Oh, dear. I hope I didn’t wake you. I came over to see Laura. Is she home?”

“Yeah. She’s in the john or something, but she’ll be right out. Come on in.”

“Thanks.” I closed the door behind me as I entered the foyer. To my frustration, Dave, who was at least six foot two, was standing so close to me that he was blocking my view into the house.

He rocked on his heels a little and crossed and then re-crossed his arms. “I’d offer you something to drink, but it’d take me forever. My glasses seem to have disappeared. My
eye
glasses, I mean, not the drinking glasses. Anyway, point is, I’m as blind as a bat without them.”

“Jeez. That’s got to be really unpleasant. Don’t you have any backup glasses, or contact lenses?”

“Yeah, but I seem to have misplaced
those,
as well. All I’ve got are my prescription sunglasses, but I feel like an idiot wearing those indoors. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to tell you, Laura’s still loving all these hoity-toity old antiques you pulled together for us. Hardly a day goes by when she doesn’t mention how much she likes this thing or the other.” He stepped back and leaned against the doorjamb.

“That’s great to hear. I’m always . . .” My voice drifted as my attention was captured by the Louis XV mirror in the foyer. Something was terribly wrong.

“You’re always
what
?” Dave prompted.

Stunned into silence, I walked over to the giltwood mirror and gently touched the frame. This was a cheap copy of the astonishing circa 1760 piece that I’d helped them purchase for twenty thousand dollars! And I’d had to dicker hard to get the antiques dealer to sell it at that price.

Dave squinted at me. “Is something the matter with the mirror? Or with your face?”

“The mirror was hanging a little crooked.” Inwardly, I was shaking. Because Laura was my friend but I barely knew Dave, I wanted to discuss this with her first.

Had my clients been swindled? Had someone managed to swap this mirror with the expensive one that I’d installed? But how would that be possible? Laura’s knowledge of antiques was comparable to my own. The inferiority of the scrollwork on the gold spray-painted frame was blatant.

I took a calming breath. Surely I was panicking over nothing. Dave or Laura must have simply decided that twenty grand for a mirror was too much, so they’d returned it.

“Grab a seat,” Dave suggested as he ushered me into their front room. “I’ll go see where she is.”

My knees nearly buckled, but I managed to sputter “Thank you” as he wandered away to look for Laura. Though horror-struck, I remained standing. This room had been my personal masterpiece—my chance to work with an unlimited budget and a sophisticated client whose tastes mirrored my own. The results had been glorious, a radiant ensemble of unparalleled beauty in these irreplaceable handcrafted pieces that brought such serenity and warmth to the space, a household that conjured images of less-harried times when one-of-a-kind quality was celebrated and attention to detail mattered. Now just the dressings remained. The subtle peach hues on the ethereal lofted walls were the same, as were the vibrant window treatments, the to-die-for accessories, and even the spectacular Oriental area rug with its rich classic royal reds and blues. All unchanged. But the antiques, the very heart and soul of the room and which I’d poured my
own
heart and soul into to find, had been replaced with fakes.

Reeling, I studied the chair by the door. Two months ago, we had placed a Mary Washington chair from the 1800s in this very spot. Although the upholstery of the two chairs was roughly the same cinnamon color, this one’s hand—that all-important feel of the fabric against one’s skin—was dreadful. The stretcher was now a plain dowel, and the front legs had been lathed with modern machinery.

My stomach in knots, I made my way to the writing table. Pulling the drawer all the way out, I had to bite my lip as I caught sight of the bottom. Cheap particleboard. The joinery was crap—stapled together. The eighteenth-century desk I’d selected and installed in this house had been handcrafted with loving dovetail precision, mortise and tenon legs. Sick at heart, I replaced the drawer.

I’d stepped into my own worst nightmare. Every stick of furniture in sight had gone from a gorgeous antique to a tacky reproduction. Anything beyond a cursory inspection would reveal that at once to any knowledgeable eye.

What the hell was going on here?

Could someone have conned Laura and Dave into believing these fakes and frauds were the fortune in antiques that they’d purchased? But that was impossible. Laura would know instantly that these were fakes. And the authentic pieces had been in place the last time I was in this house, just two months earlier.

There was the slightest hitch in Laura’s step as she walked into the room and spotted me, and it broke my heart. I’d come uninvited, and, obviously, she knew I would instantly realize that the furnishings had been switched.

“Erin,” she said, that warm, Julia Roberts–like smile instantly on her face. “This is a surprise.”

Chapter 2

Had Laura hidden Dave’s glasses because she’d sold the antiques while he was on his business trip? Did she now plan to skip town with the profits? No, that was absurd. Nobody in their right mind would attempt such a thing. And Laura was a wonderful friend. I felt a pang of guilt for even thinking that she’d do something so rotten and underhanded.

I tried to calm myself. “I came over to make sure you were okay. I had visions of that guy you flipped to the floor last night tracking you down a second time. He left just a minute after you did.”

“That’s what
I
was afraid he’d do, too,” Laura replied. “So I headed straight for my car while calling the police. I’m sorry I didn’t call you back and explain all that to you last night. But Dave had been gone a whole month and got home unexpectedly, and we had a lot of catching up to do.”

“Did you recognize the guy with the dreadlocks or something?”

“Unfortunately. Though not at first . . . not underneath the beard and all that phony hair.” She glanced over her shoulder, then said softly, “I don’t know his name or anything, but he’s been stalking me all over town.”

“He
has
? Stalking you? Why?”

“I have no idea. He must have spotted me someplace and developed an infatuation.” She combed her hair back from her face, her fingers trembling slightly. “What happened after I left?”

“He claimed he was an undercover cop, then he left, too.”

Laura absently stroked her neck along the line of her cream-and-rose-tinted silk scarf. “He’s no cop. I’m sure of at least
that
much.”

Despite the serious subject matter, the duplicated furniture surrounding us pulled my attention like iron filings to a magnet. It was all I could do to keep my eyes focused on hers. I asked, “But you don’t know where he lives or works? And why he suddenly donned a wig?”

“Exactly.”

It was no use; my vision was drawn to the camelback sofa against the east wall. The seat cushions and back used to be covered in black woven horsehair, painstakingly blended with the original strands. The upholstery was now some sort of trashy-looking nylon-synthetic blend.

“It scares me half to death,” Laura said, recapturing my full attention. “At least the police are on the lookout for the guy now, so maybe they’ll catch him soon.”

“I hope so. Plus, you showed him you’re no pushover when you used him as your judo partner last night.”


Judo
partner?” Dave repeated as he returned to the room.

Laura laughed lightly. “I was honing my self-defense skills last night with Erin.” She pressed her chest against him in the process of giving him a little peck on the cheek and, in sugary tones, asked, “Sweetie, could you please go take care of that thing you were telling me about earlier?”

“What ‘thing’?”

“The burned-out lightbulb in the basement that you promised you’d replace.”

“Oh. Right. No problem.” He gave me a small smile. “Nice to see you again, Erin.” He added with a chuckle, “Even though you’re mostly blurry.”

“Good seeing you, too, Dave. And I hope you find your glasses very soon.”

“One of these days you’ll learn not to be so absent-minded,” Laura said to him.

“Too late . . . that ship has sailed,” he replied as he left the room, touching the wall as he cautiously rounded the corner.

The moment he was out of earshot, I demanded, “What’s going on?”

“With our antiques?” Laura asked, her voice breezy. “Didn’t I tell you about all that?”

“No.”

“We’re speculating . . . selling them, eventually, but we’re holding on to them in safe storage for a couple of years until their value increases and we can find some really motivated buyers.”

I stared at her, incredulous, yet she didn’t blink. Prior to this moment, she hadn’t mentioned one word about “speculating,” and that would have influenced my furniture selections immeasurably. Also, why would they duplicate their antiques with cheap replicas? “And yet you didn’t want to enjoy them yourselves in the meantime?”

She crinkled her nose. “Originally, that’s what we’d planned to do.” She sighed. “You’ve seen for yourself how Dave is, though. He’s such a klutz even
with
his glasses that, sooner or later, he was bound to do some serious damage to something priceless.”

My mind was in a whirl. Laura’s explanation wasn’t adding up; I needed to leave and sort through my thoughts. She continued, “He already managed to burn a hole clear through our new coffee table. He fell asleep with a lit cigarette on the edge of the ashtray.”

“I didn’t realize he smoked,” I replied absently. Smoking habits was one of my standard questions whenever I met with new clients to design their rooms; that affected my decisions from furniture placement to fabric selection. Both Dave and Laura had said they were nonsmokers.
Why was my dear friend lying to me?
“Had you already swapped the table with a reproduction?”

“Yes, thank God.”

I forced a smile, my stomach in knots. “Well, Laura, I’m glad to see that you’re all right. I’d better get to my client’s house now.”

“Thanks so much for dropping by, Erin. Let me walk you to your car.” She took my arm as we walked down the sandstone front steps. “I feel terrible about how our girls’ night out yesterday got cut so short. But let me tell you how I’m making it up to you.” She paused dramatically. “I’ve got a friend in Lyons who told me that she knows the owner of this gorgeous mansion up there, which, rumor has it, houses the nicest antiques west of the Mississippi. So, my friend is going to ask if you and I can take a private tour of the place sometime next week.”

“Really? That sounds great.” At least, it
would
have sounded great fifteen minutes ago, before I’d spied her houseful of reproductions.

“You can say that again. But that is strictly
entre vous et
moi
.” She hesitated. “That is, if what I just said means ‘between you and me’ in French.”

“It does.”

“Oh, good.” She grimaced. “It’d serve me right if I’d just accidentally told you to enter through my left nostril.” Her laughter was infectious, as always, despite the circumstances. “Don’t you just hate it when people throw French phrases into their speech? It is
so
pretentious!”

“Absolutely.” I unlocked the door of my van. “I find it
trés ennuyeux, mon cher
!”

She laughed merrily. “I’ll call you in a couple of days about Lyons. And, again, thank you for checking in on me. I’m really touched that you cared enough to come all the way out here.”

She gave me a quick hug, and I told her honestly, “I’m just glad to see that you’re all right, Laura. Let’s talk soon, okay?”

She trotted toward the door, turned, flashed her glorious smile at me, and, as she ducked through her door, cried over her shoulder, “Brrr! I’m freezing my
derriere
off!” She winked. “That’s French for ‘sorry ass.’ ”

I mulled over our conversation as I drove away. I truly liked and admired Laura, and it would hurt me deeply to lose her friendship. There was surely a simple, innocent explanation for the smoking-versus-nonsmoking issue; Dave must be one of those people who quits smoking periodically but always believes that, this time, he’ll kick the habit for good. But the cheap reproductions were harder to explain away. Why not place the speculative antique purchases directly into storage? Why duplicate everything, item for item? Most tellingly, if her actions were aboveboard, why hadn’t she told me of her plans?

The mega-wealthy often wear paste jewelry copied from the phenomenally pricey jewelry that they keep locked in their personal vaults. Surely it wasn’t unheard of to do the same thing with one’s antique furniture. Which was not to say that
I’d
ever heard of such a thing. But surely there were
some
antiques collectors and dealers who put their items in storage and lived with the replicas.

It’s just that, unfortunately, my every instinct was screaming at me that Laura Smith was not one of them.

Two hours later, I felt frustrated as I left my client’s
house. He was a wealthy widower who wanted to completely revamp his lifestyle and had hired an image consultant, who, in turn, had hired me. Although my client had denied it when I asked him point-blank, he seemed to be having serious second thoughts regarding our agreed-upon plans for his home makeover. If so, the sooner we got in sync the better. The design business is based on referrals, and I’d hoped that this job would lead to more work with the image consultant. That would never happen if my client was unhappy with the final results.

I felt myself easing up on the accelerator as I neared the café where I was supposed to meet my boyfriend, John Norton, for a lunch date. That wasn’t a good sign. On the surface, John was the perfect match for me. It’s just that I had the sinking suspicion that our relationship was heading down my typical path—even though he was wonderful in many ways, ultimately he was just not
the one.
We’d only been going out for two months, however—not long enough for me to come to a definitive conclusion. Besides, I could unconsciously be holding him accountable for something—and someone—he had no control over whatsoever.

I pulled into a space in the restaurant lot, shut off the engine, and sat in my van, staring through the windshield.

John was a terrific guy—nice-looking in that clichéd tall, dark, and handsome way. He was also intelligent and charming. He even had a professional interest in interior design; he managed a design center for one of the largest residential developers in the state and was in charge of furnishing showcase “demo” homes for his employers. It certainly wasn’t
John’s
fault that Steve Sullivan, of all people, had been the one to set up the two of us.

To John, Sullivan was an old friend. To me, Sullivan was a sometimes friend, sometimes professional rival. What Sullivan
always
was, though, was an enormous thorn in my side. With our downtown offices on the same street and separated by just three blocks, potential customers—especially the ones who were familiar with comic English operattas—sometimes got Gilbert versus Sullivan confused. In the two and a half years since I’d first moved to Crestview, both of us had been guilty of falsely accusing the other of deliberately taking advantage of our clients’ confusion. A couple of months ago, just as our frayed feelings were finally on the mend, they’d unaccountably begun to unravel once again when John and I started dating.

The door to my van opened, and I jumped, my reverie abruptly shattered. John smiled at me, his dark eyes merry. “Oops. Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. I spotted you through the window and figured you might be waiting for a personal escort, beautiful lady.”

“I was just lost in thought.” I returned his smile. “But I’ll gladly accept an escort, kind sir.”

He gave me a peck on the cheek as he helped me down from the van. “Client troubles?”

“Something like that.”

He held the restaurant door for me. The female maître d’ gave him an appreciative once-over as she deposited us at our table. He and I chatted effortlessly, and I soon began to realize, as I always did whenever we were alone together, why it was that I was so drawn to him. John was excellent company and a really good guy. I was nuts to think that there was no magic between the two of us. I took a moment to silently admire his features. In his mid-thirties, John had the most wonderful laugh lines imaginable; when he smiled, they crinkled at the edges of his dark eyes, making them all the more appealing.

We ordered our lunch, and while we ate, I started to relate how I’d arrived at a client’s house this morning and found her “myopic boyfriend” stumbling around the place and the antiques “downgraded to chintzy reproductions.”

“Man, that’s weird,” John exclaimed. “So, what’d your client have to say for herself?”

“Well, the ‘client’ is my friend Laura . . . the one I went to Audrey’s presentation with last night? She basically claims that she’s keeping all of her pricey antiques under lock and key, while she and her boyfriend use the much less expensive replicas. She says they’re simply speculating with the antiques and hope to sell them at a profit in another couple of years.”

John’s brow furrowed as he polished off the last bite of his chicken tetrazzini. “Her name’s Laura?”