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By Valerie Hansen
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Valerie Hansen
All right reserved.
Leaving her life in Hawaii and flying to Eastern Maine so often, even for the sake of her family, was beginning to wear on Delia Blanchard. All she really wanted to do was stand on the warm sands of Oahu, breathe deeply of the sweet tropical air and feel its balmy breezes on her face. Instead, here she was, back on the Atlantic coast again and stuck within the cold, stone walls of the Blanchard mansion. It was enough to make any wahine shiver, even a transplanted one like her.
She fluffed her short, dark hair, forced a smile and aimed it especially at her youngest sister, Juliet. "You okay, honey?"
Juliet nodded. "Fine. I'm glad you came." "How could I refuse when my family needed me?"
"We do. I wish you could stay longer this time."
"I should have come when you were in the hospital," Delia said, giving her a warm, sisterly hug, "but by the time I got word and was able to book a flight back to the mainland, you were out of danger."
"I understand." Juliet smiled. "Besides, I'd rather see you when I'm not flat on my back in some depressing hospital."
Delia wasn't about to pursue this line of conversation. The sisters had enough problems without rehashing Juliet's deliberate poisoning, not to mention Portia's foiled kidnapping and Rissa's brush with death on the cliffs a few weeks ago.
Her brown eyesnarrowed as she took in the darkly paneled walls and the sweeping walnut staircase with its heavy, ornate balustrades. "Speaking of depressing This place gives me the worst shivers every time I come back. I know you'll be glad to marry Brandon and move out of here."
"It's not so bad. I suppose you would notice the contrast more than the rest of us," the blond young woman said. "There's a big difference between the Maine coast and the shores of Oahu."
"That's an understatement."
The heavy front door swung open to admit a gust of icy wind and three more of Delia's sisters. Twins Portia and Rissa led and Bianca followed. "Sorry we're late. Father insisted on taking the scenic route in spite of the bad weather."
Delia laughed. "You should have ridden with Miranda and Aunt Winnie or Juliet and me. My rental car may not be as luxurious as Father's town car but we got back here a lot faster." She wrapped her arms close around herself, chilled despite her long-sleeved, belted sweater, and squelched a shudder as her sisters shed their coats. "I don't know why Father insisted we visit the cemetery again. I think births and happy occasions like that should be celebrated, not anniversaries of loss."
The others murmured agreement, growing more subdued the moment their father, Ronald Blanchard, joined them. Tall and broad shouldered, with attractive streaks of gray at his temples, he cut a dashing figure. Although he was in his late fifties, he still drew a lot of attention from the female residents of Stoneley, Maine. His overall countenance, however, left a lot to be desired. Delia couldn't help comparing it with the brewing, New England storm. Happily, the gray clouds outside would soon lift while her father seemed to be growing more morose by the minute. Anyone who wasn't aware of his decades-long estrangement from his recently deceased wife, Trudy, might think that he had actually cared for her.
The sisters knew better, of course. They had grown up in a home where the mere mention of their mother's name was strictly forbidden. Ronald Blanchard, like his own father, Howard, was a hard, unforgiving man. Whatever he said, went, and no one dared question his edicts. No one except her.
Thoughtful, Delia pressed her lips together. Perhaps she had inherited more negative family traits than she liked to admit. She'd tried for twelve years to forgive her father for having had her marriage annulled and she still harbored a grudge. Yes, she'd been underage at the time. And, yes, she'd gone against his wishes. But that didn't mean it couldn't have worked between her and Shaun Murphy if
Delia took a deep breath and tried to banish the image of her handsome husband. Correctionformer husband. Their marriage had lasted only a few hours, so why did she still picture herself as Shaun's seventeen-year-old, starry-eyed bride? It was ridiculous.
She'd been sure their love would last a lifetime, until her father had interfered. All he'd had to do was make a few threats and throw enough money at the problem for Shaun to walk away as if he'd never pledged his undying love.
"So, how's business?" Bianca asked pleasantly, jarring Delia back to the present.
"Good. We're already busy. Once school is out for the summer on the Mainland we'll get even busier. Every kid and his brother want to learn to surf."
balance on that cumbersome board the way you do," Juliet chimed in. "It looks really hardand dangerous."
"Not if you watch for rip currents and know what you're doing. Of course, I wouldn't try it on a rocky coast like this one, but it's wonderful under the right conditions. Catching the perfect wave and shooting the curl is a thrill like nothing else."
Bianca chuckled. "Oh, I don't know about that!" Dark eyes twinkling, Portia and Rissa exchanged knowing glances and quiet giggles. The twins were so in tune with each other they didn't need to say a word to communicate.
"Being madly in love with Leo doesn't count, Bianca." Juliet was grinning and rosy-cheeked.
"Besides, my Brandon is much better looking than your Leo."
Bianca gave her baby sister a playful whack on the arm and shook her head. "He is not."
Delia wanted to join in the merriment but found it impossible to think of good-looking men without picturing Shaun, with his short, black hair, intense blue eyes and that five-o'clock shadow he never seemed able to shave off completely. And his smile. Oh, his smile. When he'd looked at her and flashed that killer smile she'd melted like a scoop of ice cream on a sizzling beach.
A sizzling beach was exactly where she belonged, and as soon as possible, she affirmed silently. When her father had shipped her off to the Islands to isolate her, he'd sent her to a place where she'd truly found her paradise on earth. Maybe God did work in mysterious ways, just asAunt Winnie had always claimed.
And speaking of her aunt Delia smiled as an older, distinguished-looking woman in a finely tailored, ivory silk suit approached. "There you all are!"
Delia briefly kissed her aunt's sweetly scented cheek and noticed how chilly her skin was. "You shouldn't have gone with us to the cemetery, Aunt Winnie. You're still freezing." "Nonsense. You girls are dears but I wish you wouldn't treat me as if I were your grandfather's age. Unlike Howard, there are a lot of good years left in me." She smoothed the hair sleekly tucked into a chignon at her nape. "Even if there is a smidgen of gray in my hair."
"You're perfect," Delia said. "Someday I want you to come to Hawaii to visit me. The islands are really beautiful, even in the rainy season."
"Maine is beautiful, too," Winnie countered. "It's just a different kind of beauty. Like the roses in my garden. They may come in different colors and sizes but they're all gorgeous."
That reminded Delia of a famous line from Romeo and Juliet. "'That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.'"
Winnie smiled, clearly delighted. "Exactly." She gestured toward the formal dining room. "Shall we? I have everything laid out on the table. I want each of you to have some keepsakes to remember Trudy by."
"I wish I could recall more about Mother than what you've told us over the years," Delia confessed.
"It seems like such a waste to have found out she was alive, only to lose her again before we had a chance to even get acquainted."
Winnie sobered. "I know. But the Good Lord knows best. We can't always have everything we want in life."
Bianca came up behind them as they turned to move into the dining room. Speaking softly, she leaned close to Winnie's ear and said, "Sometimes, if we wait, the things we wish for do come to us. I understand you and Tate Connolly have been seen sharing romantic, candlelit dinners at the Coastal Inn."
When she saw a becoming blush brighten her aunt's features, Delia grinned. "Do tell? I can see I've been missing out on important family gossip." She glanced at the sister who had revealed Winnie's happy secret. "Why didn't you tell me, Bianca?"
"Because she was too caught up in dreaming of marrying Leo to think of anything else," Juliet offered. "I don't know how she manages to concentrate on her legal work back in Boston with all those stars in her eyes." The youngest sister struck a pose and mimicked, "I'm sorry, Your Honor, I'd have had that brief ready but I was so busy choosing my wedding gown and flowers it just slipped my mind."
"Oh, hush," Bianca said as Delia and the others laughed heartily. "I'm not the only one with stars in my eyes. I don't know why you're all teasing me. Portia, Rissa and Juliet are just as bad. This is not a contest to see who can make it to the altar first, you know."
Moments later, a stricken look came over Bianca, and Delia knew she had belatedly realized her faux pas. Rather than show her true feelings and spoil the lighthearted moment, Delia made a silly face. "In that case, I've already won. I beat you all by twelve years. Just don't start counting anniversaries or I'll lose my status, okay?"
That said, she stood tall, sidled past Aunt Winnie and led the way into the formal dining room. No way was she going to cry. Shedding tears for what might have been was as stupid as trying to surf on a beach where there was minimal wave action. Some goals were simply unrealistic. A Blanchard woman like her, looking for happiness with the likes of Shaun Murphy, was a perfect example of an impossible dream.
A dream she had long since abandoned.
Delia reacted from habit and took her usual place at the enormous mahogany dining table. Miranda, the eldest and shyest of the sisters was on her left. Bianca, the next oldest, sat on her right. Across from them, Delia's three younger sisters, Portia, Rissa and Juliet, sat next to Aunt Winnie. Their father, Ronald, Winnie's only sibling, had come as far as the arched doorway but had hung back there, obviously ill at ease and choosing not to join the group of women.
Delia eyed him surreptitiously. The others might have missed noticing the change in him because they saw him more often than she did, but she could easily tell how much he'd suffered since Trudy's funeral. Though he may not have shown any love for their late mother in life, he was definitely mourning for her now. How puzzling
She glanced around the table as she absentmindedly smoothed the ecru lace cloth covering the lustrous, dark wood of the antique table. Except for Juliet, who had been a baby at the time, they had all shed plenty of childhood tears over the loss of their mother. Twenty-some years ago they had been told that Trudy had died in a tragic auto accident. Finding out a few months ago that she was alive, then going through the trauma of losing her again, was surreal.
Delia was still struggling to believe that their mother had not only been living for all those intervening years, she'd spent most of them confined to a mental institution! No matter what Ronald's motives may have been at the time of their mother's initial illness, Delia couldn't excuse him for lying to his children about her. If, instead of postpartum depression, poor Trudy had suffered from something like cancer or heart disease, they would have been told the truth and could have comforted her, could have encouraged her to perhaps find healing.
Instead, Ronald had chosen to use Trudy's illness as an excuse to send her away from her family forever and thereby punish her for her marital indiscretions.
Sadly, Trudy hadn't been the only one to suffer. Her daughters had, too. Those years were lost to them all and now it was too late to do anything but divvy up the meager remnants of Trudy's sad life. If, as the Bible said, even a sparrow couldn't fall without God knowing and caring, why had He let her mother languish in a hospital like that when her children needed her? It just wasn't fair.
Delia was so immersed in retrospection that she jumped when the buzzer for the gate sounded. They all did. Winnie started to rise, then paused when Ronald said, "Stay there and finish what you're doing. I'll see to it."
Curious, everyone listened for clues as to who their caller might be. Blanchard manor was perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean and was therefore subject to being battered by terrible storms off the North Atlantic. Delia and the others knew that only the most intrepid New Englander would be out and about on a foul day like this, even though the weather wasn't quite as blustery and icy in May as it had been a few months before.
In the background, Ronald's voice sounded subdued as he spoke into the intercom, then released the locked gate to admit their caller.
Excerpted from Deadly Payoff by Valerie Hansen Copyright © 2007 by Valerie Hansen. Excerpted by permission.
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