Everything seems to be grouping into threes for Stanton and Clay’s catered Christmas Eve party.
There’s the abandoned kitten triplets they find in their walk of their Palm Springs neighborhood; guests Mr. and Mrs. Wells Prince, with their last-minute request to bring their outspoken granddaughter Caroline; the arrival of arrogant Sebastian Koczmakos and his two intimidating assistants; and, at the front door, a tearful young couple and their little boy who discover they rented the house for the holidays from a fraudulent online site. A drunken, rambling call from Clay’s father reawakens hurtful memories of his two brothers and the abuse they endured. A flirtatious local veterinarian seems suddenly interested in sharing their bed.
Christmas Eve will be anything but a silent night.
MJP grasped Stanton’s elbow. “I wasn’t sure if you were upstairs or down. Something at your front door needs to be dealt with. It’s a very confused young couple. With a little boy. Last name: Millken. The husband is gorgeous, and I mean gorgeous. The woman’s the color of bacon rind, staring and half-smiling. He’s arguing they’ve rented this house through January 4th.”
Bryce, the husband had thick black wavy hair and, was, yes, gorgeous, in a black leather bomber jacket and a thick turtleneck reminiscent of a sea captain. His wife, introduced as Caitlyn, reworked a scarf around her throat that didn’t quite hide an aggregate of red hives. Dark circles had emerged under her eyes, made worse by the long trip West, as Bryce had explained, with a long, less-than-merry delay in Dallas.
“We heard every excuse: crew shortage, then it was a mechanical issue. We should have done the Phoenix connection. Even if it wound up canceled, we could have rented a car and drove to Palm Springs faster than all that time in Dallas. So we’re still on Ohio time. It’s 10:30 at night there, isn’t it buddy?” Bryce said to his son Tyler, who wore a denim shirt under a down vest. He tightly clutched his mother’s hand, transfixed by the many orbs of the celestial light fixture suspended from the foyer ceiling.
Bryce opened a manila envelope with paperwork.
“We paid $11,800, which reflected a significant discount on the quoted rate if we prepaid.” At someone’s groan, he offered, “Yeah, yeah, a mistake, in hindsight. I have every follow-up, every receipt.”
Reality suddenly collided with Caitlin. She appeared close to crying, yet with the same robotic upturned mouth.
“All of that means nothing,” his wife said vacantly.
Bryce passed the entire envelope to Stanton at his request. He inspected the first few pages.
“The exterior is ours. That’s scary. It was clearly taken this past spring when we put in the Bougainvillea hedge. They’re small compared to now. The inside ... not even close to ours. It’s a composite of several homes. The mountain view looks near Joshua Tree National Park. Yet your cab made it through the front security gate. How?”
Bruce held up a series of character and numbers on his cellphone for Stanton to study, who sighed.
“Discouraging to see someone’s giving out the general vendor access code. It’ll have to be changed. Just so you know, short-term rentals are only permitted by City ordinance. I don’t know of a single one in this area.” Stanton pursued puzzling with “seeing cars parked everywhere, you didn’t think that was odd? Or the line-up of catering vans? Or that the house was all lit up?”
“It’s not clear that any of that was related.” Bryce unfolded one of many e-mail exchanges. “We have this code, too. There’s supposed to be a lockbox. I also have a number if we had any issues. I had no reason to call it. I suspect they might not be helpful right about now. If it’s even a real number.”
“It was too good to be true,” Caitlin whimpered dejectedly. Her tears had surpassed hiccups and were hurtling toward hyperventilation.
Stanton crossed his arms. “You need to file a dispute with your credit card company as fraud. You’ll need a police report. We have to involve them. You understand that, right? It’s no reflection on your character.”
“I’m calling the non-emergency number right now,” Phil offered.
Caroline urged, “Shouldn’t you ask them in? Does no one recognize the analogy? A nativity scene has practically come to the door.”
Seeing Stanton’s disapproving glance toward her granddaughter, Enid implored apprehensively, “Remember your manners, Caroline. This isn’t your house.”
“Never got that etiquette tip, on how to best ignore someone’s plight, “Caroline replied.
“It’s bad enough you wore a ballcap to an evening event.”
“For reals? Someone who put hard candy in her hair is scolding me?”
Robert Santangelo steered Stanton aside to urge caution.
“This is your lawyer talking now. Once this family is over the threshold, there’s precedent that they could legally squat and it could become dicey to dislodge them.”
“Caroline’s right. We can’t let them just stand there.”
“Then at least do not permit them to bring in their luggage. Tell them, with a house full of people, it’s safer kept temporarily in the garage.”
So Stanton offered gently, “Please. Come in. Let’s press pause,” as he moved toward the stairway. “I need to involve my husband in this.”