Clouds pressed in, painting the sky with a heavy coat of gray that matched Allison's mood. It was nearly six o'clock on Thursday evening. Allison was unpacking her small overnight bag and placing her few belongings on padded hangers in the guest walk-in closet. She had nothing formal for dinner, so her pink suit would have to do. She hung up black pants and a cream blouse for tomorrow and carefully tucked her platform sling backs under a foot stool. After a quick call to Jason, her ex-husband and current boyfriend, asking him to take care of her dog Brutus, she sat on the lounge chair in her suite and looked around.
True to Francesca's word, the guest quarters were generous. Two rooms–a bedroom and a study–flanked a full bath. The bedroom was furnished with heavy antiques. A four poster canopied bed, with down mattress, comforter and richly upholstered shams, stood against one wall. On the opposite wall sat an ornate, carved dresser topped by a thick slab of champagne-colored marble. A lounge chaise completed the bedroom. All of the suite's linens, bedding and fabrics wore a designer touch, with coordinating patterns of cream, butterscotch and brown. The overall effect lent a comfortable charm to the decidedly masculine rooms.
But the bathroom was Allison's favorite. Nearly as large as the bedroom, it had two sinks, a bidet and a roman-style sunken bath that hinted at the wealth the Beninis must have once had. Allison eyed the bath longingly. No time for that now.
Leaning back in the lounge, Allison tapped her colleague Vaughn's phone number. Vaughn answered on the third ring. “Guess where I am?” Allison asked.
“Funny. At the Benini estate.”
“Still. I'll be here until tomorrow.” She gave Vaughn a quick rundown of her meeting with Francesca. “She's in a hurry to get started.”
“You’re staying at her house? Isn’t that a little…weird?”
Allison laughed. “Under normal circumstances, yes. The Beninis have the room, though, and I could use the crash course in Benini culture if I’m going to work magic in such a short time. I need you to do some things.”
“We need to come back up and get her next Friday. Do you think you can clear my schedule for next Saturday? Maybe a portion of Sunday, too? After that, find a few hours a day for the next two weeks. And start to line up the gang. Errol for hair, Natalie for make-up, Kenneth for voice and diction. Call Neiman Marcus…try Annette for personal shopping.”
“So you want the works?”
“No nutrition, at least not for now. But include Dr. Keith for a psych consultation. Francesca may balk, but truthfully, she'll need all the calm she can get. Dr. Keith's good at helping people deal with anxiety.”
“Thanks.” Allison thought through her intake checklist. “What am I missing?”
“It's not what, it's who. You received another urgent call today. From a woman named Denise Carr.”
“Don't recognize the name.”
“She manages musicians. She'd like you to meet with her client, Tammy Edwards, next week. She asked for today or tomorrow, but I explained that you were in Ithaca.”
“Why the urgency?”
“Tammy Edwards–she's known as Swallow, how do you like that for a nickname?–will be on the next season of America’s Next Pop Star. Heard of it?”
“Of course. It's one of those reality shows. People sing in the hopes of becoming famous.”
“Yep. According to Denise, Tammy was discovered by a music executive while singing a solo in her church's choir during a wedding he attended. He signed her on the spot and had her audition for this show. She made it.”
“So why the image consulting now? Isn’t it a little after the fact?”
“It’s all a little odd because Tammy already has a music contract. But the show doesn’t prohibit it, and her manager thinks the show will be good exposure. Denise–that’s the manager– says the kid has no stage presence. That she was basically raised by wolves.”
Allison rose. She walked to the window, parted the heavy drapes and looked outside. The sky had darkened to a surly charcoal and although dusk was more than an hour away, it looked like night had fallen prematurely.
“Where’s she from?”
“What’s wrong with Scranton?”
Allison let the drapes fall. “I've known you for a long time, Vaughn. I can hear the hesitation in your voice. What's up?”
“Ignore me,” he said. “Denise Carr just rubbed me the wrong way. It's nothing.”
Allison doubted it was nothing, but she knew Vaughn wouldn't tell her until he was ready. “So when did you get Tammy in?”
A weary sigh from Vaughn. “’Fraid so. You'll get back tomorrow, you're giving a speech at that business luncheon on Saturday and beginning on Monday, you start long sessions with Tammy Edwards.”
“Well, at least I have next Sunday night free.”
“I had to reschedule your Recently Divorced group. I made it for Sunday night.”
“Were the ladies okay with that?”
“I offered to refund their money, but they requested that timeslot instead.”
Allison laughed. “Who likes to relax?”
“Relaxation is overrated. Besides, you're up there in the beautiful Finger Lakes. Have some wine. Enjoy the view.”
Lightening flashed outside. Seconds later, Allison heard the distant rumble of thunder. The lights in the suite flashed on and off.
“Sightseeing's not in the cards.” Allison glanced at her watch. “Dinner in fifteen, then a session with Francesca afterwards.” She closed the drapes as the lights flickered again. “I'll call you tomorrow when I’m on my way back?”
“Please. And don't let the ghosts get you. I read something about the old Benini estate being haunted. Someone died in that house.”
“Lovely,” Allison said. She slipped her shoes on and looked around the room. Shadows danced in the falling gloom. “Ghosts I can handle. It's Francesca's vultures I'm concerned about.”
Wendy lives near Philadelphia with her husband, three sons and two muses, dogs Molly and Driggs.