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Authors: Earlene Fowler

Seven Sisters (6 page)

BOOK: Seven Sisters
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“California fireflies,” I said, pointing at the lights.

We went by a row of stables and then drove up a slight incline, passing the tasting room—once the original land-owner’s residence. Its whitewashed adobe walls and red tile roof were a twin to the folk art museum. We turned a corner where the “new” ranch house perched on top of a hill overlooking the valley. The Craftsman-style house was painted shades of tan and brown, blending in with the oaks and pines growing tall and lush around it. A sprawling three stories, and lit up bright as a ballpark, it looked large enough to house three or four families. In the circular driveway were parked a half dozen cars, including one of Daddy’s blue Ramsey Ranch trucks. We pulled in behind a gleaming maroon Jaguar.

Gabe eyed the Jag and whistled under his breath. “The gang really
is
all here.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“That’s Lydia’s car. She said she wouldn’t be able to reschedule the trial she was working on, but apparently she did.”

I looked through the windshield at the sleek, expensive car, my heart sinking, my armpits growing damp, thankful that it was almost dark so Gabe couldn’t see what was, no doubt, the cauliflower look on my face.

5

THE DEEP-SET front porch was comfortably crowded with some bent willow tables and chairs, a long porch swing, and three Adirondack benches. All were covered with identical green plaid cushions. A large, triangular dinner bell, the kind Dove used to call Daddy and the hands in from the barn, hung next to the porch steps.

“This is some place,” Gabe said in a low voice.

“Eighteen thousand square feet,” I said, for some reason remembering that fact from the long-ago home tour. “Designed by Julia Morgan herself. She and the judge were personal friends, I heard.”

“Who’s Julia Morgan?”

“You’ve never heard of Julia Morgan?”

His face was blank.

“She only designed the Hearst Castle, a ton of YWCAs, some big conference center up in Pacific Grove that’s supposed to be the biggest arts and crafts-style complex in the country, and a good deal of the houses in Berkeley. Never got the credit she deserved, probably because she was a woman.”

He groaned under his breath. “Don’t tell that to Lydia, or we’ll be hearing a lecture half the night on how men keep women down.”

“Which might do you some good, el
patrón
,” I said, my voice slightly mocking as I knocked on the carved front door.
Maybe I’d like this Lydia after all.

Cappy herself answered. She was dressed in neat black Wranglers, a black cowboy shirt with yellow roses embroidered on the yoke, and shiny black round-toed riding boots. Except for the occasional newspaper photo, I hadn’t seen her for probably ten years, but she hadn’t changed much with her cropped, iron gray hair, wide, strong jaw, and tanned skin, whose real beauty was found in the deep lines radiating from her clear, gray eyes and faintly over-bitten smile.

“Benni Louise Harper, I swear you don’t look a day over eighteen,” she said, putting a wiry arm around my shoulders, giving me a hearty squeeze. “You still riding every day? Still practicing your rope tricks?” She looked up at Gabe. “You would be surprised what this one can do with ropes.”

Gabe grinned at me and winked. “Is that right? We’ll have to talk about that.”

Cappy held out a short-nailed, age-spotted hand. “Cappy Brown here. You must be her police chief.”

“That would be me,” he said, taking her hand. “Gabe Ortiz.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Gabe. I’ve heard through the grapevine you’re doing a bang-up job policing San Celina. Come on back to the big room and we’ll get you a glass of wine.” She nodded over at me. “Let me tell you, Chief, you’re darn lucky to have corralled this one. She comes from good stock.”

Gabe laughed and took my hand. “My grandfather was the best horse trader east of Dodge City, Kansas. He taught me if they had strong legs and good teeth, you can’t go wrong.”

“Sounds like a man I’d be proud to trade with. Come along now.”

“Good teeth?” I said under my breath, elbowing him in the side. “You’re going to pay for that remark, Friday.”

We followed her down a long hall past a dark wooden staircase toward some open double doors.

The room was large and airy with an open-beam ceiling, reminding me of the sitting room of an expensive Montana hunting lodge. The sounds of people laughing and the tinkle of glassware washed over us the minute we stepped over the threshold. The deep brown leather sofas and wingback chairs were well used and comfortable-looking with bright, geometric Pendleton pillows tucked in the corners. Old, probably priceless, Navajo rugs were tossed casually over the backs of straight-back mission oak chairs. An antler chandelier, the lightbulbs cleverly hidden among the horns, lit the room with a warm glow. Behind a dark oak bar, a picture window stretched from one end of the room to the other, framing a breathtaking view of the Amelia Valley, its orderly seams of grape rows, and the Seven Sisters volcanic peaks, shadowed blue and gray in the waning evening light.

“Wine at the bar, and appetizers are over on the sideboard,” Cappy said, pointing to the south side of the room where a small group of people gathered. “Help yourself. It’s some of our 1988 vintage. A good year for the pinot noir, Etta tells me, though I’ve always preferred the ’91 estate chardonnay. We’re barbecuing a top block of beef and chicken and, for those with more exotic tastes, some wild boar my son, Chase, and our ranch manager, Jose, shot a few days ago. We have wines to match anything you care to eat, of course.” She glanced at an antique grandfather clock next to us. Tiny carved racehorses, necks stretched for the finish line, ran around the clock face. “We’ll probably be eating in another half hour or so. Chase will pour you whatever you want.” She gestured to the man behind the bar.

Chase was dressed casually in an expensive sports jacket and white golf shirt. His blotchy face and loud laugh made me guess he’d been sampling the wine long before the first guest arrived. He stood in front of seven or eight wine bottles, each bearing a version of the silver-and-white Seven Sisters label—the seven volcanic hills with three horses connected tail to nose, running in front. “If you’re not a wine drinker,” she continued, “we have a full liquor cabinet, and Chase once worked as a bartender on a cruise ship. So if you drink it, he should be able to make it.” She rolled her eyes. “One of his many unsuccessful forays into the world of real work. The rest of the time he practices law. I keep telling him if he practices enough, he might get halfway decent at it. My two sisters are late, as usual, but they’ll eventually slither in.” She looked up at Gabe, her mouth twisting into a sly, scheming grin. “You and my baby sister have tangled, I’ll venture to guess.”

“Who’s your sister?” Gabe asked.

“Willow Brown D’Ambrosio. She was one of the city council members who voted against the budget initiative that would provide the city with more money for additional police. I can give you the license plate of her Lexus if you like. She’s always parking in handicapped spots using our mother’s sign even when Mother’s not with her.”

“Well, as to the voting, it’s a free country,” Gabe murmured, letting his voice drift off, not addressing the illegal use of the handicapped placard.

She winked at me and gave a deep belly laugh. “He’s being a politician now, isn’t he? I bet he wants to string her up by her diamond-studded ears. Probably would do her good. Shoot, she might even enjoy it.”

I laughed at the somewhat shocked look on his face. I’d known there was no love lost between the sisters, since I could remember Cappy talking this way when I was a teenager. Old age and maturity obviously hadn’t softened their attitudes toward one another.

“I think I’ll go see how Jose’s coming with the meat. Let me know if you two need anything and don’t let Giles, Willow’s no good grandson-in-law, talk you into buying stock in the company. No matter what he says, we’re not selling out to his daddy’s corporation.”

“She’s certainly something,” Gabe said, watching Cappy stride across the room.

“That’s mellow for Cappy,” I said. “You ought to see her when she’s really aggravated.” I stared after her curiously. “Wonder what that remark about selling out was about.”

Gabe shrugged. “Family squabbles. What would you like to drink?”

“Anything. I just need something to hold.” I never could eat or drink comfortably at parties where I didn’t know the people, especially when gorgeous ex-wives lurked in the bushes.

I spotted Dove and Daddy over by the natural stone fireplace gazing up at an original William Matthews watercolor of cowboys herding cattle through a pebble-strewn creek. Daddy held a glass of wine, gesturing up at the painting, nodding his head at something Dove said. I quickly scanned the rest of the room, looking for other people I knew and, if truth be told, for Lydia. I wanted to catch a glimpse of her before she saw me. There didn’t seem to be anyone resembling the woman in Sam’s picture, but I did see Sam and Bliss over by the picture window. He looked unusually subdued and even surprised me with his appearance. I don’t know who helped him pick out the clothes—Gabe certainly hadn’t—but he wore dressy dark slacks, a slate blue linen shirt, and black leather loafers. It was hard to believe this handsome, neat young man was the kid whose normal attire was either baggy surf shorts or faded Wranglers. Bliss wore dark green tailored pants and a thin, off-white shirt, her pale hair hanging loose and wavy around her shoulders. Sam dipped his dark head a moment, listening to something she said, his eyes drinking her in. They were a physically striking couple, no doubt about it—not just because of their youth, but also because of the stark difference in their coloring. I studied them a moment, contemplating what their child might look like.

Behind me Gabe said, “You look wonderful, as always.” His voice was low and pleasant, his practiced public voice. Through the thin silk of my shirt, I felt his large hand on my elbow. “Benni, I want you to meet Lydia.”

I turned and faced her, licking my suddenly dry lips. She was even more striking in person than in Sam’s photo, though, I was happy to see, not as beautiful. Taller than my five feet two by about five inches, her black hair was cut in a straight, shoulder-sweeping style, making the most of its glossy ebony shine. Perfect makeup softened her sharp features, her face dominated by the deep brown luminous eyes she’d passed on to her son. Her red designer suit—Armani, Anne Klein, Chanel, Elvia would know—fit her frame without a bulge. Though she was eight years older than me with skin that, I gleefully noted, showed it, I still felt like a mixed breed ranch horse standing next to a champion Kentucky Thoroughbred.

She held out a French-manicured hand. “I’m happy to finally meet you,” she said. Her handshake was firm, dry, and assured, befitting a successful professional woman. “I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.”

I paused for a moment. “Me, too,” I finally said, thinking,
Oh, very clever reply
. That should send her running to the hills in intellectual terror and intimidation.

Gabe said, “I’m on the way to the bar to get Benni a drink. Would you like something?”

“That would be wonderful. Just bring me my usual.”

“Chardonnay is apparently one of Seven Sisters’ specialties,” he said.

Her deep-throated laugh caused a glimmer of recollection on his face, obviously bringing back an intimate memory. That and the fact that he actually remembered what she liked to drink intensified my feelings of not exactly jealousy . . . More like anxiety.

She laughed again, teasing him with the memory. His nervous returning laugh tempted me to smack him.

Oh, geeze, forget anxiety. Jealousy is exactly what it was.

After he left, attempting to be mature, I said, “Cappy says their ’91 estate chardonnay is very good.”

Her lips curved in a half smile. “Are you a wine aficionado ?”

Don’t even try to compete in that arena,
a small voice inside me warned. “No,” I said, for once heeding the sensible voice. “Cappy just told us that. Actually, I know next to nothing about wine. Don’t even like it. Don’t even like grape juice.”

She laughed again, heartier this time, a there’s-no-male-to-impress female laugh. “You’re honest, I’ll give you that. If you want to know the truth, Benni Harper, if I wasn’t a more secure person, I’d hate you. Not only did you manage to snag Mr. Evade-All-Emotional-Entanglements over there”—she nodded at Gabe’s broad back—“but my son practically worships you. I do appreciate you taking care of my two men so well.”

Her two men? I cleared my throat, stuck for a comeback. Gabe hadn’t been
her man
for almost nine years now. Before I could think of a retort, Gabe returned with a glass of wheat-colored wine for Lydia and a club soda for me.

“The appetizers are really something,” he said. “You ladies should check them out.”

“Thank you,” Lydia said, taking the glass from Gabe, her hand lightly brushing his. “I think I will after I reconnect with my son and future daughter-in-law.” She sipped the wine. “Umm, this
is
very good. Ms. Brown certainly does know how to make wine.” She looked up at Gabe, her expression serious and worried. “We need to talk about Sam.”

“Call me at work tomorrow. We’ll compare schedules and get together.”

“I’ll do that.” She turned back to me. “It was so nice finally meeting you, Benni. We’ll see each other again soon, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure we will.” I took a huge gulp of my club soda, annoyed at myself for acting like a tongue-tied junior high school girl.

“She’s very worried about Sam and Bliss,” Gabe said, watching her walk toward their son. “I think she’s going to try to talk them out of getting married.”

“And what do you think?” I asked, trying to be calm and mature about everything, attempting to ignore the explicit and very appealing mental picture of her falling off San Patricio pier and being eaten by a passing great white shark.

“She should be worried. They are young and naive. Then again, I’m proud he wants to take responsibility for this baby. Makes me think that we did some things right as parents.”

BOOK: Seven Sisters
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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