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Domestic Bliss Series

Death by Inferior Design

Death by Inferior Design

Chapter 1

Something was rotten in the state of Colorado, or more specifically, in this one Crestview neighborhood. Steve Sullivan's utility van, marked "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 his 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 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, in a major departure for me that Carl had insisted upon, 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 bright, cloudless 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 up 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, hundred-year-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. This city 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 he'd been surly in return. He 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 hired his step-son 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 flair up," so the workshop would actually be located across the street, at Randy Axelrod's house—the home of his 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 weekend at the spa. Taylor can handle whatever furniture you've got in mind." Taylor Duncan was his step-son, 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 he went on to say, "That'll make it more fair anyways, if you're getting paid the same—" He broke off, 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 van, that cute little cash-register jingle in my mind had been replaced with a shrill warning siren.

Many of the Hendersons' rooms were in need of a facelift, especially Debbie's home office. Just by looking at the woman's smiling face 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 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 arch rival.

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 step-son; 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 pick-up 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 and said, "You must be curious about the Sullivan Interiors' van in the driveway. 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."

Kevin McBride ushered me past the living room and dining room and around the corner, where Carl Henderson and Steve Sullivan were leaning against a kitchen counter, listening to a third man pontificate about who would "definitely kick butt" in the Super Bowl. He had an enormous paunch, salt-and-pepper hair, and a white scrub-brush-like mustache.

I tucked a lock of my wavy auburn hair back into its pony tail.

In spite of myself, my vision was drawn to Steve 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 and black jeans. He had gorgeous hazel eyes and light brown hair, slightly tousled in an 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 burly man gave me an apprising look from head to foot 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, but 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 pull-over 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."

Carl said, "Kevin's wife has been nagging at him, too, about redecorating a room in their house, and 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. So we could 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...to remove my treadmill 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."

"A competition?" I asked nonchalantly, keeping to myself the plaintive shriek: With Sullivan?! Are you people insane?! This whole thing could exceed 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. "That's right. 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, though this probably goes without saying, 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. 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," Randy said, winking at me.

I looked at my handsome fellow designer, wondering if the man was capable of keeping "friendly" in the equation. A few months ago, while filching the Coopers' job away from me, he'd reportedly 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 but had merely moved away. Sullivan had given the Coopers a sob story to win them over. 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 wished had been much more forceful. Randy should have planted his feet better. And swung at the guy'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. Over his shoulder, Carl and Kevin exchanged disdainful looks.

"If we did become partners, it would have to be Sullivan and Gilbert," Steve said. "With a capitol 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 bringing out the worst in him. Granted, I, too, would kill to get that kind of publicity for my business—but I would much rather kill with kindness. I gave him an angelic smile and wished 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."

"Taylor's your stepson, right, Carl?" I asked, noting how polar-opposite he and Kevin McBride looked as they stood side by side. The short, solid Kevin was the shot glass to Carl's tall, thin champagne flute. "And he knows what he's doing? Well enough to work on two different projects at once?"

"Absolutely. When it comes to carpentry, Taylor's a real whiz-kid." Behind Carl, however, Kevin McBride was shaking his head and giving a thumbs down. "And just for the record, Kevin and I have a lot more riding on this competition than you two do."

Kevin nodded. "The loser has to watch the Super Bowl at home with Axelrod. The winner gets to watch the game live and in person—with a ticket to the big show itself."

Glowering at me through his wire-rimmed glasses, Carl warned, "So you're not allowed to lose. Or else!"

"That goes double for you," Kevin told Sullivan.

A bear of a man—six-feet-five at least—lumbered into the room behind Randy. Taylor Duncan's head was shaved, and he wore work boots, overalls, and a spiked dog collar. His bare, corded arms were a mass of teal-blue tattoos like a singularly ugly toile infused into his skin. "Hey, Carl. Kevin. Sorry I'm a bit late." He had received a split vote regarding his carpenter skills, but if this were a lumberjack competition, Taylor would be the man I would want on my team.

"One more thing before we all get to work, folks," Randy announced. "Since I got a bad ticker—" he patted the left side of his chest as if to give us a visual "—I won't be able to do much in the way of heavy lifting. I'll keep an eye on the clock and keep things running smoothly at both houses. Come Sunday night, I'll be impartial, no matter what's gone on from now till then. I'll decide which of you two folks has produced the best interior design and which has the inferior design. My wife says she'll help out with the sewing and picking up after everybody. Understand?"

I understood, but this was one hell of a raw deal. No one would expect two football teams to play the Super Bowl with just five minutes notice, yet these jerks had blindsided me into a direct competition with Sullivan. Would Denver Lifestyles have fun with the Gilbert-versus-Sullivan aspect and publicly reveal the loser of the competition? "I don't know how I feel about this," I began. "The thing is—"

"Let me show you something that might help persuade you."

Steve snatched a notebook off the counter behind him and started to write furiously.

He ripped off the top sheet and thrust it at me. He'd written: Hey, Gilbert! You earn $$$$ for 2 days work! Even though you'll lose!!

I crumpled the note into a tight ball while clenching my teeth. If a client hadn't been present, I'd have tossed the paper in his smug face. "You're on, Sullivan."

He gave me one of his cover-boy smiles and arched an eyebrow. "Bring it on, Gilbert."

Steve Sullivan and Kevin McBride left for Kevin's house; over his shoulder as he left the room, Taylor mumbled something about needing to get set up in Randy Axelrod's back yard. Seconds later, Sullivan was back, shouting through the front door, "Hey, Gilbert. Move your van. I've got to get mine out."

"Say 'please,' Sullivan, and I'll oblige you," I shot back.

When he said nothing, my curiosity got the best of me. I went outside, weighing the notion of singing a line or two from a tune in "HMS Pinafore" just to bug him; the idea of polishing a door handle "so carefully" as to be made "the ruler of the Queen's navy" suddenly had a certain appeal. I found him standing by the garage. He was massaging his temples and had such a worried look that I almost asked if he was all right. He spotted me just then, cleared his throat, and got into his van.

I backed up my van and parked in the space Sullivan had vacated while he drove a mere two doors down the street. Why hadn't he simply walked over here after finding the note on the door? Could he have suspected something was up and been prepared to turn down the assignment and drive home? Had it just been his desire to defeat me in a competition that made him stick with this job? If so, for a pair of interior designers, we were being disgustingly macho.

I decided to save myself a few steps later and bring some of my tools and paint supplies inside with me now. I opened the back doors to the van and was startled when Randy Axelrod's voice boomed behind me, "Can I help you carry stuff in?"

"Didn't you just say you had a weak heart?"

"Sure, but I know when to take it easy. I'm not made of eggshells."

"You can carry the brushes, rollers, and pans."

"Will do."

I took my time stacking the supplies, wanting a moment to collect myself. "Aren't you worried about inspiring hard feelings between you and your neighbors by being a judge?" I asked Randy.

"Why would judging a couple rooms make anyone feel bad?"

"Someone might object to having their brand new room deemed 'an inferior design,' as you called it."

"Ah, hell, that won't matter." He chuckled. "They already do hate me."

"Who? Kevin and Carl?"

"Plus their wives."

I winced at the concept of that much discord so close to home, which should always be everyone's very least discordant place to be. As we headed up the walkway, I tried to send him the telepathic message: Life's too short.

"Don't look so concerned, honey," he said with a laugh. "It's not like I'm fond of them either."

"Then why judge their rooms? And spend the weekend helping them remodel? Why subject yourselves to one another's company when it's not absolutely necessary?"

"Hey." He shrugged, opened the door, and held it for me with his foot. "Beats sittin' around the house, watching football." We stashed the supplies just inside the door. Randy tapped his chest. "Watching the Broncos lose is the worst thing I can do to my heart, if you ask me." He fidgeted with his mustache and surveyed our surroundings. "I never should've sold Carl this house in the first place."

"This used to be your house?"

"Up until five years ago. After my first heart attack, we decided to simplify—get a smaller place."

I looked across the street at the two-story structure, which appeared to be the smallest in the immediate neighborhood. Though this was December and not exactly the season for lush yards and bountiful gardens in Colorado, it was clear at a glance that someone was taking immaculate care of the grounds. A pair of gigantic plastic candy canes had been placed to either side of the base of the driveway. Just to one of side of the stoop, an old-fashioned wood sled adorned with a lovely evergreen wreath and bright red bow leaned against the gray house—a simple but immensely elegant decoration. The sight made me yearn for a white Christmas. "That's your house over there?"

He snorted. "Home sweet home."

"Nice."

"On the outside." He gestured for me to follow him outdoors. "Come and meet the missus. I told her I'd let her know when we're starting work. She seems to think she can help, but the woman's all thumbs. Taylor had better not let her near his power tools, or she'll likely cut one of those thumbs of hers clean off." He chuckled at his gruesome imagery.

Curious to see the house that, if I won this inane competition, I could soon be redecorating—and aware that our excursion would allow me to suck up to the judge a little—I replied, "Sure. Thanks," and headed across the street with Randy.

He let me inside his home, allowing the storm door to bang shut behind us. I took in my surroundings without making it obvious that I was doing so. As a designer, I'm naturally curious about people's homes but I've found that if I made it even the slightest bit evident that I was checking out a room, the homeowners become nervous. This small living room could be made cozy, but was too cluttered. The walls were a cave-like gunmetal gray and sported small pictures with a hodgepodge selection of frames. The fabric patterns were all over the map, with no consistent color palette. These were common problems that were easy to rectify, and it struck me as ironic that this man edited an interior-design magazine.

"Randy? Is that you?" a woman's voice called.

"Last time I checked."

"I caught Taylor Duncan poking around in our refrigerator a couple of minutes ago! You need to go out back and—" A trim, fifty-something woman in a Waverly floral-print cotton dress rounded the corner. Spotting me, she froze and stared slack-jawed at me.

Assuming she was simply caught off-guard at suddenly finding herself face-to-face with an unexpected guest, I smiled and said, "Your husband suggested I come over and meet you. I'm Erin Gilbert, and I'm going to be redecorating the Hendersons' bedroom."

"Pleased to meet you, Erin," she said and stepped forward to shake my hand. She let her grip linger an instant longer than necessary, studying my features all the while. "My name's Myra. Myra Axelrod."

"Have we met before? If so, I'm sorry, but I—"

"No, no. You just remind me of somebody. My, uh, sister, when she was your age."

"Erin's got to get cracking," Randy told her, "so you'd better excuse us."

"I'm all set, too," Myra said, grabbing a tan cardigan from the arm of the sofa. Her piercing gray eyes stayed on my face all the while. "I'll come with you, Erin, and be your personal assistant for the weekend."

Before I could respond, Randy said, "No, Myra. We need to start at the McBrides' house."

"But I—"

"No, Myra." He shook his head.

They held each other's gaze. Or rather, they held each other's glare. All things considered, this was my worst-ever sendoff for a new job. "It was nice meeting you, Myra, but I do need to get cracking...." My voice faded as I pondered the expression. When it comes to interior design, "cracking" is so rarely a good thing.

"We'll catch up to you later, Erin," Myra replied, with a warm smile.

The moment the door shut behind me, I could hear the bass-and-contralto rumblings of their argument. From my vantage point across the street, I got a good look at the McBrides' house and could see that it was half again as large as the Hendersons' place. Subtle clues in the roof line—now adorned with icicle-light strings—and weathering of the cedar shingles indicated that the McBrides, or maybe the house's previous owners, had made two significant additions to the original structure. Odd that homeowners who could afford to put that kind of money into their property would hire a designer for a surprise one-weekend makeover. Then again, everything in this neighborhood felt slightly odd.

Making a mental note to never again let mercenary concerns override my instincts, I returned to the Hendersons' bedroom. Taylor was there, helping Carl clear out the room. I stole a moment to scan the bedroom, both as it existed and as I envisioned it, which was an ability that I considered one of my most precious gifts. My spirits soared at the notion of how, in just one weekend, I'd be able to take this space from blah to wow.

Carl had told me that his wife was a voracious reader, and there were books stacked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa along the wall beside her side of the bed. I planned to convert the small closet by the entrance into a floor-to-ceiling bookcase that would be hidden behind the closet door. Despite the richness that neatly arranged books bring to any room, "neatly arranged" was the operative phrase, which obviously wasn't Debbie's strong point.

The Hendersons already owned an exquisite eight-drawer alder chest with a lightly distressed stained exterior. That one piece was worth several thousand dollars—roughly ten times the value of all their other furniture in the room combined. Debbie Henderson would soon have a fabulous custom-designed alder bed with maple accents in a light finish that complemented the showpiece chest. Curtains would hang between the bed posts and hide the new headboard's shelves so that she could keep them in whatever state she wished and not spoil the visuals of the room.

As for color schemes, the walls were now bone white. When my work was complete, they would be faux finished with a gold base and a burgundy top coat, which would create a warm, romantic hue reminiscent of a Tuscan sunset. Floor-length honey-gold raw-silk draperies would really pop against the wall's dark color. Crown molding, which echoed the lines of the chest, would enhance the vertical aspects of the room.

Now that my cruddy send-off was behind me, I relished the chance to sink my teeth into this job. And to force Sullivan to eat some humble pie in the process.

The three of us had soon moved the furniture into the guest room, and while the two men carried out armloads of paperbacks, I removed the corner bead from the Aspen paneling on the accent wall. The sensation of ripping out boards has always greatly appealed to me. For one thing, it marks the no-turning-back-now portion of the journey, just like breaking a bottle of champagne on a ship bow. For another thing, the nails as they're wrenched free make a really cool noise.

This paneling, which the Hendersons faced from their bed, was on a short wall that they had to round in order to reach their dressing area and bathroom. The floor plan necessitated that the large chest remain against this south wall, but placing wood furniture against a wood wall in nearly identical tones is a mistake. My remedy was yummy wallpaper with an elegant pattern in a light burgundy—claret—background and champagne gold as the accent color.

I began my demolition on one side of wall, Carl and Taylor on the other. They were making short work of the task and had about half of the boards removed when Taylor asked, "Hey, Carl? Mind if I keep these boards and use 'em in my trailer? I'll burn the cracked ones in the fireplace 'n' install one of those kinds of decorating thingamajigs where the paneling comes halfway up the wall."

"Wainscoting," I couldn't help but interject, alarmed that a supposed "first-rate carpenter" wouldn't immediately know that term.

"You may as well, Taylor," Carl answered. "Might make Debbie feel better to know someone was getting some use out of it. This paneling was her favorite thing in the room."

"Wait a minute, Carl!" I cried. "Why didn't you tell me that when I was asking you what your wife might want?"

He shrugged. "You're the designer. I didn't want to cramp your style. 'Specially not when there's a Super Bowl ticket riding on it."

"But this is your and your wife's room! I'd have been happy to forgo the wallpaper and work the paneling into my design." Horrified, I looked at the pile of thin tongue-and-groove boards we'd made. Most were cracked and dented. "Now it's too late."

"Then there's no sense sweating about it now, Gilbert," Taylor said with a sneer.

I glared at him and almost sniped: Thanks for the advice, Einstein, but realized it wasn't in my best interest to antagonize my time-share carpenter. "Please call me Erin, not Gilbert."

I went back to ripping out boards with a vengeance. One short board suddenly fell off the wall before I'd even touched it.

"Uh-oh," I said. "This had better not be a dry-rot problem." I knelt to take a close look.

"What's that?" Taylor asked, leaning down to look over my shoulder.

"Looks like a secret compartment," Carl replied.

"Weird," Taylor muttered.

I reached inside the small cubby hole, which looked as though someone had punched through the drywall and then chipped at its edges. The opening was roughly eighteen inches above the floor and was large enough for me to reach my arm through past the elbow and touch the floorboards. The first thing my fingertips brushed against felt like a delicate chain, and I managed to pinch it between my fingers and lift it out. It was a necklace—a lovely onyx cameo on an old-fashioned gold chain. The intricate carving of a woman's face in profile against a pink coral background was stunning. With the delicacy of Belgian lace, the gold setting framed the petite carving beautifully. This cameo appeared to be a family heirloom, as opposed to a priceless possession, and I couldn't imagine why someone would hide such a beautiful personal item inside a wall.

"Is this Debbie's?" I asked Carl.

He shook his head, but his cheeks had gone crimson and his jaw was tight enough to crack his teeth. I reached inside again and pulled out a sheaf of folded papers tied with a red satin ribbon. Love letters, no doubt. I set the stack on the floor near my feet and reached one more time into the cubby hole to determine if there was anything else behind the drywall, but the letters and necklace were everything.

"'My Dearest,'" Taylor read, crouching down by the pile of letters, "'You were constantly on my mind today—'"

"Stop!" I cried. "You have no right to read those letters, Taylor! They belong to somebody else."

He ignored me, but did at least read silently. After he flipped over the first page, he said, "It's boring anyway. Signed, 'Love always,' and the letter 'M'."

"I don't know any M people," Carl muttered.

"Unless it's really 'H' for Henderson," Taylor said, his voice mocking.

Carl grabbed the letters from Taylor's hands. "That's an 'M'. And even if it is an 'H,' it's not my love note. I'd remember if I'd been stashing love notes inside my bedroom wall, for God's sake!"

The muscles in his jaw were working and his stooped shoulders slumped even more noticeably. He paged through the letters, and this time I couldn't object—they'd been found in his house, after all—though I grew increasingly uneasy. If they were Debbie's, I hoped Carl wasn't the violently jealous type.

"The paper looks really old," Carl remarked. His features and voice revealed some relief. "I'll bet Randy or Myra put them here. Hey! M for Myra!"

But wouldn't Myra have remembered this stash in the years since they'd last lived here? Discussing the Hendersons' design project, if nothing else, should have sparked a memory. How hard could it possibly have been to sneak upstairs and remove the contents before I arrived? "I have to plaster up that hole and have it dry in time to hang the wallpaper," I said, thinking out loud.

Taylor went back to work tearing down paneling, while Carl carried the letters and pendant to some other room. I idly turned over the board that had been covering the hole to see if the back half of the groove had been filed away.

In a rectangular, carved-out indent that would have lined up with the cubby hole was a small photograph of a smiling toddler-aged girl with red hair, standing next to a blue-and-green checkered umbrella stand.

My stomach was instantly in knots, and I had to stifle a gasp. I glanced up at Taylor. He was paying me no mind, absorbed in his work. I peeled the picture loose and pocketed it, my pulse racing so fast that I felt a little faint.

I'd seen an enlarged image of that photograph sitting on my mother's piano every day for sixteen years of my life. The baby in the photograph was me.

© Leslie O'Kane


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