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Coming back to this house always made her think of her late mother.
Bianca Blanchard stood in the massive hallway of Blanchard Manor, a chill moving through her body as she handed her black velvet evening cloak to a nearby servant who'd been hired as extra help for this special evening.
Adjusting the tight-fitting bolero jacket of her navy-blue evening gown, Bianca searched the elite crowd for signs of her older sister, Miranda. She'd feel much better if she could talk to her. Bianca hadn't really wanted to come home to the quaint town of Stoneley, Maine, for their Aunt Winnie's sixtieth birthday party, but it would have been rude and downright unforgivable for her to stay away. She loved Aunt Winnie, as did all of the Blanchard sisters, but Bianca didn't enjoy parties. Especially in this house. She never had, and she probably never would. Entering a crowded room had always made her feel claustrophobic, as if she might die of suffocation. Entering the Blanchard house only added to that feeling.
In spite of the majesty and castlelike façade of the huge stone mansion sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the painful memories lurking about in the dark corridors, coupled with the sadness and sickness permeating the many rooms of the house, made it impossible for Bianca to put on a happy face and work the crowd.
To calm herself, she glanced around at the familiar things she remembered from her childhood. The sweeping walnut staircase opened wide with heavy, ornate balustrades, making Bianca want to run up those stairs and straight to the room she'd once shared with Miranda. That sunny room with the double bay windows on the second floor would be quiet and cozy, not nearly as dark and foreboding as the capacious downstairs parlor to her right and the long dining room to her left. Even crowded with the A-list guests of Stoneley society, the house still echoed with a melancholy that caused shadows to leap out at Bianca.
Shadows filled with memories of her mother. But no one here was allowed to talk about that. Bianca steeled herself, pretending she was in the courtroom preparing for opening statements on an important case. She had no problem standing up to ferocious judges or devious white-collar criminals, but she sure had a problem trying to fit in with this high-society crowd.
Smoothing her dark brown upswept hair, she looked across the hallway, past the round mahogany table decorated with a crystal vase full of white roses and baby's breath, her gaze moving over the many faces to finally settle on one.
Bianca smiled, her gaze holding Leo's for a minute. He nodded his head, his blue eyes flashing with the intensity she remembered so well. A smile worked at his full lips as he watched her.
"Steady," Bianca whispered to herself, remembering how from the first time she'd met him, she'd always felt an intense awareness of Leonardo Santiago. Even though their paths rarely crossed, Bianca enjoyed the challenging banter that seemed to flow between them almost like a casual flirtation—if she only knew how to really flirt. But flirting with Leo wasn't so very hard, since he was a striking man. He always dressed impeccably, born executive that he was. And with thick sandy-brown hair and electric blue eyes, he could easily pass for a leading man in a romantic movie.
Maybe Leo could help her out tonight. She'd learned in high school speech class that a speaker should find one kind soul in the audience and make eye contact often with that person. That method had worked for Bianca with stoic jurors. Maybe it would also help her through an awkward social event. Especially since Leo didn't seem to have a problem making eye contact.
Dropping her gaze, Bianca could feel a slight blush moving up her neck. It made sense that her father's right-hand man at Blanchard Fabrics would be invited to her aunt's birthday party. Ronald Blanchard expected complete loyalty from his employees, and that certainly included ordering them to show up and make nice with some of the richest citizens of Stoneley.
She knew Leo's history with the town's famous textile and fabric mill. He'd worked his way up, laboring throughout high school and college, from factory worker to second in command. He was now a valuable assistant to her father. Leo's youth and business smarts had brought the company into the twenty-first century with innovative ideas in both synthetic fabrics and environmentally conscious technology, without compromising the integrity or reputation of Blanchard Fabrics.
Well, more power to him, Bianca thought as she finally spotted her sisters Miranda and Juliet coming toward her. Putting thoughts of Leo out of her mind, Bianca hugged Miranda close. "Hello."
"How are you?" Miranda, clad in a long-sleeved burgundy velvet dress, hugged Bianca close.
"More important, how are you?" Bianca asked back, concern for her older sister foremost in her mind.
Miranda suffered from anxiety attacks each time she left the mansion. She was a gentle, caring person, with a love of poetry, spending most of her time creating beautiful handmade chapbooks. Bianca wished Miranda could find a way to overcome her agoraphobia, so she could get out of this depressing house more often.
"I'm doing okay," Miranda replied. "No panic attacks so far tonight. And no disasters, party-wise, either."
"I'm here to give her moral support," Juliet told Bianca as she held Bianca's hand in hers and kissed Bianca on the cheek. "We all know Father isn't very good at that sort of thing."
Bianca didn't want to get caught up in their father's lack of affection for his six daughters. Not tonight, anyway. This was Aunt Winnie's special night.
"Well, I'm here to give my support," she said,
"and I'm so glad to see both of you," Giving Juliet the once-over, she grinned. "I see you're being your usual rebellious self. A bit dressed down tonight, aren't you?"
Juliet made a face. "Hey, I'm glittery."
"You sure are, because you are such a jewel." The sisters both groaned while Bianca admired Juliet's outfit. Her tunic was a sequined and sparkling white-gold, making her long, platinum hair shimmer even more, but her jeans were vintage and defiant. Juliet had her own version of formal attire, probably because one day she hoped to have her own brand of fashion designs. Bianca's youngest sister was attending fashion design school in Vermont, but planned to come home after graduation to work for Blanchard Fabrics.
"Come on in to the party," Miranda said, tugging at Bianca's hand. "Aunt Winnie has been asking about you."
They strolled toward the parlor where Winnie Blanchard sat by the roaring fire. The dark-paneled room looked festive and warm in spite of the cold, snowy January night. The family portrait hanging over the cavernous stone fireplace showed a smiling Howard Blanchard with his two grown children, Ronald and Winnie, the six young Blanchard girls, dressed in velvet and bows, sitting at their feet. To the casual observer, that portrait represented a large, loving family.
To Bianca, the absence of her mother from the picture represented a vast emptiness that flowed in its own unexplainable way through each of the Blanchard sisters.
As she stared up at the portrait, Bianca could clearly see what wasn't so obvious to the outside world. Howard Blanchard held power over his children, even now when he was frail and ailing. The fact that both Ronald and Winnie—one a widower and the other a self-proclaimed spinster—were still living under their father's roof, indicated that something wasn't quite right in Blanchard Manor.
Bianca's inquisitive mind had always wanted to find out what that something was, but she was so afraid of the answers she preferred instead to bury herself in work and stay away as much as possible.
Outside, the wind howled as a snowstorm moved over the area. Bianca could hear the rapping of a tree branch against the tall windows of the parlor. "Where is everyone else?" she asked Miranda, to stifle the chill going down her spine.
"Delia is with Aunt Winnie, trying to convince her to come to Hawaii for a summer vacation, last I heard," Miranda said, smiling over toward their younger sister and their aunt, both of whom now were so involved in a discussion with the brand-new, much talked-about Reverend Gregory Brown of Unity Christian Church, that they hadn't noticed Bianca's arrival. "And probably arguing religious philosophy with the new pastor, too."
Bianca watched as an animated Delia brushed a hand through her short, dark gamine bangs. "She looks happy," she said, glad to see the glow on her surfer sister's face.
Juliet held her arm tightly. "Portia and Rissa are in the kitchen, supervising the caterers, while Sonya tries to supervise both of them."
"Sonya Garcia must be as old as this house," Bianca said, smiling at the thought of the hot-tempered, scowling housekeeper still reigning over the entire staff. "She's been around forever, hasn't she?"
"Seems like," Juliet said, grinning. "Both she and the nurse, Peg, pretty much rule the roost around here. But the twins have such a New York attitude, Portia and Rissa love to go at it with both of them, just for fun."
Miranda gave them a mock-stern look, her schoolmarm persona coming through. "Be nice, girls. Sonya is very loyal to Grandfather, even if she does act as if she hates all of us. And Peg, well, she is so devoted to him, the rest of us have a hard time even getting into his room to visit him."
"Women are always loyal to the Blanchard men," Bianca pointed out, the bitterness in her words giving her an edgy tone as she thought about her once-robust grandfather now bedridden with Alzheimer's. Changing the bitterness into a prayer of hope, she asked, "How is Grandfather doing?"
"Not so well," Miranda said. "He rarely knows any of us anymore. Sometimes he says the oddest things. It's all part of the disease, but it's hard to watch." She gave Bianca a sympathetic look. "So don't expect much if you can get past Peg to visit him."
"I've never been one to expect too much from our father or our grandfather," Bianca said, then instantly wished she'd stayed quiet.
Howard Blanchard was old and ill. She supposed she should show him some respect. But anger and regret colored any heartfelt feelings she might have conjured up for the grandfather who'd taken them all in here at Blanchard Manor after her mother's tragic death nearly twenty-three years ago. Their grandfather's generosity had come with certain stipulations and expectations. Bianca still had trouble trying to figure out what exactly the six Blanchard sisters had done to make their father and grandfather become so cold and cruel.