To the newly formed design team of Steve Sullivan and Erin Gilbert, it seemed like a great idea: a competition to design and build the most earth-friendly home in Crestview, Colorado. But who would have dreamed that someone’s idea of saving the planet might include murder?
Environmental guru Richard Thayers was Steve Sullivan’s architectural mentor and the judge of the contest. Now he is dead—poisoned by some supposedly nontoxic gold paint. Sullivan is certain that Richard’s demise was no accident, but Gilbert’s not so sure. One thing’s clear, though: the mysterious death is quickly poisoning their burgeoning romantic relationship. Suddenly, when another figure in the contest is killed and Sullivan becomes distracted by an attractive divorcee, Erin goes on a mission: not only to find the killer, but to expose the true Steve Sullivan—and the designs he’s hiding in his heart….
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Steve Sullivan's handsome face grew pale upon answering our office phone. I had no clue who was calling, and he seemed to be deliberately avoiding my gaze. I tried to distract myself by focusing my attention on the cozy sitting area we'd created on the far side of our long, rectangular office. The fabric on our luxurious new sofa—Thai silk jacquard in a bronze-gold tone, scattered with the pale outline of rust-colored leaves—beautifully complemented the luscious red-brown hues of the exposed-brick wall behind it.
But as the seconds dragged by and Sullivan remained on the phone, my imagination ran wild. Was the landlord of this building suddenly giving Sullivan and Gilbert Designs the boot? Had a loved one died? Was the IRS going to audit us?
In any case, the phone call had come at a particularly bad time. I'd just worked up the nerve to tell Sullivan something excruciatingly difficult. Now, based on his reaction to the news on the other end of the line, I braced myself for news of a different sort.
He raked his hand through his light brown hair—yet another bad sign—and finally said, "Sure, Richard. We'll be here for at least the next half hour. See you then." He hung up and rose from his red leather office chair. His brow was furrowed, and he clenched his jaw tightly as he strode over to the Palladian-style window.
"Was that Richard Thayers calling about the Earth Love contest?"
"Yeah. Bad news."
"But . . . his appointment as contest judge wasn't even official until yesterday. Did he already decide that Burke's house didn't win?"
"It's worse than that." Steve stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black jeans. "Richard is withdrawing as judge for 'personal reasons.' He's also citing our client for possible rule violations. They're going to have to launch a full investigation. Might even turn the whole thing over to the police."
"What!? That's ridiculous! You and I have been to Burke's house fifty times since we first got the rule book from Earth Love! We went over everything with him with a fine-toothed comb. His house sailed through all the judging for the previous rounds. How could he possibly have cheated?"
Sullivan remained silent and turned his back to me. I couldn't begin to guess what he was thinking, which was unusual. In the past two years, we'd gone from bitter rivals to business partners. Along the way, we'd endured more than our fair share of trauma, which has a way of revealing a person's true nature very quickly. Fortunately, the first six months in the life of our new business had been relatively smooth—not silk, maybe, but top-grade linen. Our personal relationship, on the other hand, was, as ever, about as smooth as jagged glass. We were constantly plagued by bad timing and bad luck. Steve's last two phone conversations with his "mentor," Richard Thayers, were the perfect example. I'd yet to even meet the former teacher whom Sullivan so greatly admired. But last night, Richard's call to Sullivan's cell phone had interrupted my hopes for the perfect ending to what, until then, had finally, finally been Steve Sullivan's and my perfect date. And now, the phone had rung just as I'd worked up the courage to suggest to Sullivan that maybe tonight we should pick up where we'd left off the night before.
Sullivan continued to stare out the window, fixated on its majestic view of the Rockies. I decided to scrap my heartfelt but memorized speech. Time for Plan B, which was to turn brazen hussy—cute brazen hussy, I hoped—and simply blurt out: "So, Sullivan. My bed or yours tonight?"
"So, Sullivan. Are we being investigated, too, or what?" (Somewhere a chicken was squawking, just for me.)
"Sure hope not," he mumbled in the window's direction.
I struggled to string together the meager clues that Sullivan had given me to this point. The Earth Love contest for energy-efficient homes meant much more to Sullivan than it did to me. He was acting as if this award would be his crowning professional achievement, whereas I felt that the contest's lucrative cash prize went to the homeowner, not the interior designer, for good reason. But the finalist judge, Richard Thayers, had been Steve Sullivan's favorite professor at the Art Institute of Colorado, which he'd attended a dozen years ago. Sullivan claimed that Thayers taught him everything he knew, and he was both anxious and ecstatic at the thought that Thayers might choose our design from the three finalists for "Best Green Home in Crestview, Colorado."
Still trying to pry some answers out of Sullivan, I asked, "By 'stepping down for personal reasons,' does Richard mean the fact that he's your mentor? Didn't he tell you earlier that the contest sponsors were fine with that?"
"Look, Gilbert." He turned and glowered at me. "You'll have to grill him, all right? I already told you what little I know."
My heart sank. Wasn't it only last night that his dreamy hazel eyes were staring into mine with loving tenderness? He could never keep things in perspective, and minor problems often turned us into adversaries. But all I said was: "You're obviously only giving me part of Richard's message, though. What exactly did he say?"
"I wasn't recording him, Gilbert."
"That's a pity, Sullivan," I snapped. "Because if you had been using a tape recorder, you could hit the rewind button. Clear back to our date last night. When you were calling me 'Erin' as if you liked me."
"You're the one who made the rule that we were to stick with 'Gilbert' and 'Sullivan' when we're at work!"
"I'm objecting to your tone of voice when you say my name! Call me . . . Princess Dagweeb, for all I care! Last night, when you took my hand and asked me if I minded if we skip dessert, I thought . . ." Damn! My throat was getting tight with emotion. No way was I going to start crying.
"That is what I meant," he said gently. He crossed the room, but stopped short of rounding my desk.
"And, believe me, I was sure it was going to be a two-second phone conversation when Richard interrupted us last night, or I'd have let it keep ringing. But he was acting weird. The first thing he said was: 'Why the hell didn't you tell me Burke Stratton was your damned client?' Then he accused me of teaming up against him with his 'worst enemy.' "
That caught my attention. "Why would he have a problem with Burke?"
"That's just it." He spread his arms and grumbled, "I still don't know. Richard wouldn't tell me. Just claims the guy wrecked his life . . . says if I'm smart, I'll stay the hell away from Burke before he finds a way to wipe out Sullivan and Gilbert Designs."
I nodded, starting to understand. The thought of having his life ruined in a business arrangement would have been a painful deja vu for Sullivan; a few years ago he'd been conned by a corrupt business partner and had lost nearly everything he owned.
"Having Richard freak out at me was the very last thing I wanted to happen last night," he continued. "By the time he calmed down and I got off the phone, it was too late for me to call Burke and get the story from him." He scowled at me. "And you were acting so crushed that I didn't know—"
"You left the table, Sullivan! One second you're holding my hand, smiling at me, happy because your long-lost friend, Richard Thayers, is on the phone, and the next you're striding out the door!"
"One of the men I admire most was yelling in my ear, accusing me of betraying him!"
"I didn't know that! All you had to do was whisper to me, 'Something's wrong,' or 'He's upset.' Or you could have explained when you returned to the table. Instead, you were distracted and abrupt, and you completely gave me the brush-off when I asked what Richard had said."
"Yeah." Sullivan sighed and ran his fingers through his hair a second time. "Guess that wasn't one of my better moments." He added with a charming smile, "Although, again, you made the rule about not talking business after hours."
"Again, I couldn't read your mind," I explained gently. "All I knew was, you chose to take a phone call during our date, and then you were in a funk. Put yourself in my shoes."
He gave me an exaggerated wince. "I would, but high heels make my calves look too big."
"Don't try to joke your way out of this," I said, though I was already having a hard time keeping a straight face.
"Erin." The man had a gift for saying my name in a way that could instantly make me melt. He finally came around my desk and leaned toward me, filling me with relief at the thought that, for once, we were going to avert a potentially disastrous argument. "I promise you that—"
The door burst open. In walked a man in smudgy gray pants and a ratty forest green sweater that I'm pretty sure was on backwards. He had a sizable bald spot amidst his wild, unkempt hair, and a large red nose that hinted at a drinking problem. But at that moment, he could have been Santa Claus himself and I still would have hated him, as well as each and every one of his reindeer. To make matters much worse, Steve's eyes had just lit up as though the man were Santa.
"Good to see you, Richard," Sullivan said, striding toward him.
"Likewise, S.S.," he returned, giving him a bear hug. "Ridiculous that we live in the same town now," he said in a raspy voice, "yet we hardly ever see each other. And I feel terrible about the circumstances."
"No kidding." There was an awkward pause, then Sullivan said, "You got here pretty quick."
"I was just around the corner when we hung up, and I found a space right away. Before I forget . . . did you get my e-mail about my night class?"
"Tonight at CU, right? Okay if I drop in?"
"Absolutely. That's a great idea! It's in room one-ten of the history building. We can go hit a pub afterwards . . . grab a sandwich and a brewski."
Richard and Sullivan continued to make arrangements, but all I could think was: So much for our picking up where we left off last night. How had the two men gone from face-paling angst and accusations of betrayal to chatting about night classes and beers?
Remembering belatedly that I was still in the room, Steve clapped his mentor on the back and turned toward me. "Richard Thayers, this is Erin Gilbert. Erin, Richard."
I rose for a moment, and we exchanged "Nice to meet you's" and shook hands over my desk. I hoped that his pleasantry was less insincere than mine. I hadn't set the bar especially high.
"Have a seat," Sullivan suggested, giving Richard a pat on the back. The three of us moved from our desks to the cozy nook near the window. We always allowed our visitors to sit first, and then, if it was available, Sullivan would grab the leather smoking chair and I would grab the yellow slipper chair. Today I strode directly to Sullivan's smoking chair and plopped myself down before our guest could. I hated to act so petulant, but it was the best I could do. At least I was keeping my mouth shut. Part of me wanted to scream at Thayers: Do you realize you're wrecking my love life?!
Sullivan took my usual seat. Once Richard had settled into place on the sofa, I said, "Steve tells me that you're stepping down as Earth Love's finalist judge."
He nodded grimly. "It's the responsible thing to do." He sighed. "Too bad. I read the reports from the initial-rounds' judges and saw the photographs. Burke Stratton's interior was by far the best. Not surprisingly." He winked at Sullivan.
"Thanks," Sullivan said. "Got to say that I agree with you. Though I'm far from impartial. But I also have to admit, Darren Campesio's architectural design is interesting and really energy-efficient."
"That's the one that's partially built into the hillside, right? So that the place is part cave? Ë la Batman?"
He was mocking the house, sight unseen. Annoyed, I chimed in, "The design compensates for the windowless portion fairly well. The space makes great use of skylights and mirrors."
Richard looked at me with wide eyes, then blinked a couple of times, as if puzzled. "Ah. Glad to hear it."
"And the interior for the third finalist has a lot to be said for it, too," I added.
"She means Margot Troy's place," Sullivan explained unnecessarily—assuming Richard could subtract two from three. "But Erin's biased. She designed Margot's kitchen a couple years back."
"Did she?" Richard asked, again raising his bushy eyebrows. "Too bad you guys didn't just stick to working on Margot's house." He shook his head. "When I agreed to judge, I didn't know Burke Stratton was even in the competition, let alone a finalist."
Sullivan was nodding as though he was following Richard's thread, but I remained on the outskirts. "And you're biased against Burke, so you recused yourself?" I prompted.
Richard nodded and, in a gesture eerily reminiscent of Sullivan's, dragged a hand through his messy, patchy hair. "The two of us have a problematic relationship. I can't begin to be impartial toward that pompous peacock." Shifting his gaze to Sullivan, he said, "If I were you, I'd disassociate with Stratton A.S.A.P."
"Because you think he cheated somehow?" I asked.
"Oh, he most definitely cheated," Richard said with a snort. "There's no doubt about that."
"Evidence, my dear. Evidence." He chuckled. I battled the urge to fire off a sarcastic reply. Before I could ask: What evidence? he continued, "Sorry to be so vague. But when word of what Burke is really up to gets out, no one will want to have their names associated with him or his residence."
Sullivan and I exchanged glances. Why was Richard paying us a personal visit if he wasn't going to pass along any helpful information? And why was Sullivan now giving me the evil eye if he'd just told me that I would have to "grill Richard" myself? "I'm sorry, Richard," I said, "but I'm confused. You didn't know till last night Burke was in the contest. His house passed the inspections for the previous rounds with flying colors. Yet this afternoon, you've found such a major violation that you've suggested it may be a criminal matter. How did you get from point A to point F so quickly?"
Richard stiffened and all but sneered at me. "As I believe I already told you, Miss Gilbert, I can't go into the details. I'm sorry." He rose, faced Steve, and only then forced a smile. "Well. I've wasted enough of your time." Steve, too, got to his feet as Richard continued, "I just wanted to apologize, face-to-face, for jumping down your throat last night."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
First they were rivals in the interior design profession, but Erin Gilbert and Steve Sullivan ended up becoming business partners. If not for a phone call the night before, both of them would have ended up in the same bed. Instead Steve¿s mentor Richard Thayers, who was supposed to judge an environmentally friendly home contest in Crestview, Colorado sponsored by Earth House, is livid that they designed the house of his archenemy Burke Stratton. He calms down enough to host a class where he demonstrates environmentally safe products by drinking gold paint.---------------- Following the session Richard gets into his car while Steve and Erin go to their respective homes. The next day the partners learn Richard is dead, a victim of poisoning someone tampered with the paint. Erin cannot stop herself from snooping and soon receives business cards warning her to back off or else. Still, an obstinate Erin keeps investigating with plenty of suspects from the contestants, the class, the architect, and even others. However, the killer is watching her every move waiting for the moment to end this inquiry.-------------- Readers will thoroughly enjoy this entertaining amateur sleuth tale as Gilbert and Sullivan¿s romantic aria crashes although Eric does not know why. The support cast, especially Erin¿s landlady, adds humor to the plot. Erin is loyal to her friends and clients so feels strongly she must take action even when she knows that might place her in danger from a culprit who killed once. Amateur sleuth logic aside, POISONED BY GILT is filled with charming characters, a courageous heroine and a pitiful villain, who come together to make an engaging whodunit.---------------- Harriet Klausner
I love the story and Ms. Caine's writing; but who edited it? There seem to be quite a few errors with words left out and maybe added in or mixed up. I have the entire series and enjoy the stories; but I wish that more attention was paid to the editing.
Enjoyed this book as the others I've read. Good story line and plot.