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Juliet Blanchard adjusted the dress on the fidgety model, making sure all the angles and lines were shown to the best advantage before shooing the girl out onto the runway set up in the middle of the convention center. Thankfully, the mild Vermont fall weather was drawing in a big crowd for tonight's event.
Blowing a wisp of blond hair out of her eyes and taking a place near the stage behind the curtain, Juliet watched the crowd's reaction with pleasure. This was her last show with the Vermont State University's Fashion Design program before graduation in January. Sitting among the crowd were design house representatives hoping to recruit the newest and brightest upcoming designers to their respective design houses.
She would not be one of those recruits.
Juliet tried to squelch the rising disappointment that threatened to choke her. She'd promised her family she'd come to work in the family business after graduation.
But someday she would strike out on her own and make a name for herself as a fashion designer.
Her attention snagged on a tall man standing at the back of the crowd. She guessed he was mid-to late twenties. His wavy, dark-blond hair was just long enough to be considered rebellious yet fash-ionable. And his dark eyes seemed to be staring straight at her.
She knew there was no way he could see her through the glare of the hot spotlights aimed at the stage, but still, awareness sent tingles over her arms. She'd seen this man at the last four shows. Was he with a fashion house, or the friend of a classmate?
The model returned and Juliet refocused her at-tention on the clothes. She couldn't afford to let her mind become distracted by anything or anyone. Too much work lay ahead of her before she made the move to Blanchard Fabrics and too many issues with her family remained unresolved.
Backstage, she helped the model change and then carefully handed the clothing to her assistant to be put on a mannequin for the viewing after the show.
"Juliet, come on," Giles Manfred called as he hustled his students out onstage for introductions. Juliet reluctantly went. She didn't have anyone in the crowd cheering for her. Her five sisters were all busy with their own lives and her father wouldn't have come, even if she'd asked.
Onstage Juliet accepted the applause for what it was: an acknowledgement of her designs. She felt gratified to know her work was well received.
A movement on the audience floor to her right caught her attention. Mr. Tall, Blond and Yummy had weaved his way through the crowd, halting at the foot of the stage steps. The cutting-edge styling of the olive-colored suit fit his broad shoulders and long, lean legs to perfection. Juliet tilted her head in silent question as his warm brown eyes studied her intently. The man inclined his head in acknowl-edgement.
Intrigued, Juliet smiled. What was up with this guy?
Shaking away the question, she moved down the steps. The man shifted forward. His warm hand cupped her elbow as she descended. She drew back slightly.
"Do I know you?" she asked over the din of excited voices.
With a slight pressure to her elbow, he propelled her through the throng of people to the back edge of the crowd where the noise level dropped signifi-cantly.
"No, you don't know me. But I know who you are, Juliet. And I'm very impressed with your designs."
The combination of his deep voice and his praise sent pleasure and pride sliding over her skin. "Thank you. Can I ask what brings you here?"
He gave her a boyish grin that set her heart pounding. "You can. And I'd love to tell you about the connections I have in Paris. But I'd like to tell you over dinner."
Dinner? With a stranger? She could just hear her eldest sister, Miranda's, shocked tsk echoing in her head.
"I really don't think that would be appropriate, considering I don't even know your name," Juliet replied.
Mr. Tall, Blond and Yummy stuck out his hand. "Brandon De Witte."
She shook his hand, setting off a firestorm of sparks shooting up her arm. "Juliet Blanchard. But you already know that. So, why me?"
One side of his generous mouth curved upward. "Come to dinner with me and I'll tell you."
She extracted her hand and shook her head, ready again to explain why that was impossible.
He held up a hand to stop her from speaking. "We'll be in a public restaurant. What can happen?"
"People might talk," she countered, even though the excuse sounded lame.
He made a face. "Who and to whom?" Obviously he didn't really know who the Blan-chards were or he wouldn't ask. She'd chosen a school far enough away from anyone remotely con-nected to her family that gossip very rarely reached her sisters' or her father's ears. Unlike when Juliet was in high school.
Back then she couldn't make a move, no matter how innocent or rebellious, without some-one informing her siblings. Being the youngest of five successful sisters, Juliet had a lot to live up to. Striving to prove herself capable in a family of overachievers kept Juliet busy most of the time.
But here was this handsomeshe glanced at his ring finger and was glad to see no shiny gold bandseemingly unattached man asking to take her to dinner in a public setting. What harm could come from accepting the invitation?
And while working in Paris had to stay a dream for now, getting to know someone with connections there wasn't a bad idea. As she'd heard her father say often, look ahead to the future if you want to accomplish anything.
"All right," she said, deciding that tonight she'd let the untamed streak inside her rule. "Let me grab my purse."
She hurried backstage to locate her purse and coat. On the way back out, Giles stopped her. His
"Where are we off to?" her instructor asked.
"Dinner with a, friend."
A sly gleam entered Giles's gray eyes. "With the man I saw you talking to? Hmm. Interesting."
Heat crept up Juliet's neck. "It's just dinner. Nothing romantic."
"Right." Giles nodded sagely.
"The show went great," Juliet said to change the focus.
Giles clapped his hands together. "Exception-ally! Your designs specifically were touted as the best. I really wish you'd reconsider taking that job at your family's factory. Darling, you are so much better than a factory worker."
Juliet refrained from rolling her eyes. "I'll be heading the marketing department."
"Honey, you're a designer, not some pencil pusher!"
"I have a minor in marketing, Giles," she pointed out for the umpteenth time.
He made a scoffing sound.
She laughed. "I've got to run. I'll see you on Monday."
"Have fun," he called out to her as she hurried back to where she'd left Mr. De Witte.
"Ready?" He held out his arm.
She linked hers through, conscious of the strong muscles beneath his sleeve. "Where are we going?"
"Do you like Italian food?"
"Great. Fratelli's right next door it is then."
A few minutes later, they were seated by a large plate glass window overlooking Lake Champlain. The moon hung low in the clear fall night sky and cast a luminescent glow across the water's surface. Twinkling lights marked the homes along the shore-line.
A waiter approached, took their orders and left. In the background above the soft clinking of dinner-ware and low conversations, the music of Vivaldi played.
Juliet twirled the mineral water in her goblet. "Are you a local?"
"No. I'm in town to study a few companies that I'm interested in."
"Companies? What do you do?" She took a sip of the water.
"I find companies that are struggling and either buy them or revitalize them."
"Ah, a corporate raider."
He gave a careless shrug. "That's a misnomer."
"So you said you'd tell me what brought you to our fashion show. And about your connections in Paris."
"Your designs brought me to the show."
She blinked, flattered. "How did you"
"I saw the spread in the Vermont News about the school and the show listings."
The article that had appeared at the beginning of the fall term had featured two of her earlier pieces as well as a picture of the graduating class. Her father had been less than pleased. He didn't like having the Blanchard name bandied about in such a way. His reaction still stung.
"I have a strong contact in the House of Roan in Paris. I would be more than willing to introduce you. You have heard of Roan, haven't you?" he asked.
"Of course. Who hasn't? He's only the leading, most over-the-top designer in the world." Even the suggestion that she could set a foot in the House of Roan would be beyond her wildest imaginations.
"You would love working in Paris," he continued.
"The Seine and the Louvre. The cafés and the history."
She stifled a sigh. Her dream of one day living and working in the City of Lights would have to wait until she fulfilled her promise to her family. She didn't want to let herself entertain the crazy thought of designing for Roan. Better to face her reality and be content than set herself up for disap-pointment. "That is so kind of you to offer. What do you get out of it?"
"Wow. You don't pull any punches, do you?" He didn't look offended, which she found re-freshing. Too often people didn't take well to the direct approach. Her family surely didn't. She'd learned to filter her thoughts growing up. But in the real world, she found straightforwardness more ef-fective. "I have to wonder why the interest. You seem to be a man who wouldn't offer to help for purely altruistic purposes."
He placed a hand over his heart. "You wound me." The twinkle in his eye contradicted his words. "I think not," she replied with a smile.
He leaned forward, his expression turning earnest. "You have extraordinary vision. A talent that should be encouraged and fostered."
She swallowed back the sudden lump in her throat. If only her family thought the same way. "I appreciate your confidence. Now, tell me, where did you get that fabulous suit?"
He sat back and thankfully took the hint that she wanted to change the subject. They talked fashion and finances, art and sports. When the conversation turned to faith, he'd stiffened and she had the distinct impression by the bitter tone in his voice that something dark lurked in his past that kept him from God. That made her sad. Her own past was fraught with drama and heartache, but her faith had been the anchor in her life.
"Where did you grow up?" she asked.
"Are your parents still there?"
A sorrowful look entered his eyes. "No. My parents died in a car accident many years ago."
"I'm so sorry."
He quickly veered the conversation to other topics including her family and the factory. He asked question after question about her life in Stoneley, about her siblings and her father. She actually enjoyed regaling him with stories of her more colorful exploits as a child and a teen. She was amazed to discover the time passing without the awkward silences that usually transpired on dates.
But this wasn't a traditional date, she reminded herself later that evening when he walked her to her car. "Thank you, Brandon. I really had a nice time," she said as she opened the driver's side door.
And she had. More so than she had in a very long time. She liked this man. Too bad she didn't have room in her life at the moment for a relationship.