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She was going to have fun if it killed her. And, judging by the way Portia Blanchard's feet were slipping out from under her, it just might.
"Come on, Portia. You can do better than that." Her older sister Cordelia laughed the words as she sped by Portia, her skates spraying chips of ice as she passed.
"Your skirt is too long and too full. That's why you're having trouble. Let's go back to the house.You can change clothes." Miranda, the oldest of Portia's five sisters, took her arm, urging her toward the edge of the pond.
"Changing won't transform me into a world-class skater, Miranda." Portia pulled away, her clumsy efforts almost landing her on the ice. She'd never been graceful on skates, but she'd always loved trying. Loved the yearly twilight skate she shared with her five sisters, loved the cold crisp air, the feeling that no matter what the future held, they had each other. "Besides, I don't want to miss sunset."
"We've still got twenty minutes until sunset. That's plenty of time to get to the house and back." Miranda was nothing if not determined.
"Twelve minutes. Give or take a few seconds," Bianca, second-born and usually the peacemaker of the family, cut in. "She's an adult, Miranda, not a kid. She can wear what she wants, so stop nagging her."
"I was not nagging. I was just pointing out that pants might be more appropriate."
"Appropriate? Since when has Portia been appropriate?" Nerissa skated toward them, a smile lighting a face so like Portia's even their father had difficulty telling them apart.
"Since never." Juliet joined them. The baby of the family, she had a restless energy that was never quitecontained, though tonight she seemed subdued, her green eyes lacking their normal sparkle.
They all seemed subdued and Portia knew she was partially to blame, her heartache adding to the discordant note of this year's reunion. Maybe she should have stayed in New York. The family had enough to worry about without adding her troubles to the mix.
"No, you shouldn't have stayed in New York." Rissa leaned in close, sensing her thoughts and whispering the reassurance in her ear.
"No twin secrets tonight." Juliet smiled, but there was something in her eyes that bothered Portia. Sadness? Jealousy? "We're here to have fun and relax. So why are we all looking so gloomy?"
The question hung in the air, no one willing to give voice to the answer. After almost twenty-three years of believing their mother dead, they had evidence that she might be alive. It was she who occupied their minds this cold February day. But more than that occupied Portia's.
She thought of Tad, of Jasmine, of the wonderful time they'd had together at last year's Winter Fest, and felt something hot and tight fill her chest. "You're all looking gloomy because none of you can compete with my grace and beauty on the ice."
She whirled away from her sisters, attempting a spin that athletic Delia could have done in her sleep, but that Portia had never perfected. Her skirt billowed out, tiny silver mirrors sewn into the material catching the last rays of golden sunlight. For a moment she was fluid and graceful, the world reduced to a smeared painting she longed to capture on canvas"powdery snow, towering evergreens, a hazy purple sky. Then her feet tangled and she flew backwards, landing in a heap of fabric, laughter bubbling up and spilling out. If it was edged with hysteria, only Rissa would hear and she'd never dream of pointing it out.
Detective Mick Campbell followed the sound of laughter across a road and through a cove of trees. Unless he missed his guess, the pond he was looking for was just ahead. According to Winnie Blanchard, all six of the Blanchard sisters were skating there. A thin layer of snow muffled his footsteps as he moved into a clearing shadowed in twilight. The pond, much larger than Mick had expected, shimmered in the fading light. As Winnie had said, six women were in the center of the ice. Five stood with their backs to Mick. The sixth sat in a puddle of bright fabric, laughing up at her sisters. Mick had the impression of wide, dark eyes, finely drawn features and curly hair pulled back from a pale face.
Which sister was she? Not Miranda. Mick had known the eldest of the six in high school and had seen her once since his return to Stoneley nine months before. Bright colors weren't her style. Neither was loud laughter. If memory served, Juliet had fair hair and light eyes. He'd seen pictures of Bianca in recent weeks. This wasn't her. That left Cordelia and the twins"Nerissa and Portia.
The woman sitting on the ice laughed again, extending her hand to one of the other women and allowing herself to be pulled upright. Perhaps she sensed his gaze. One minute she was laughing, the next she fell silent. Even from a distance Mick could see her body stiffen, her back straighten. She turned her head, glancing up the slope of the hill where he stood.
He raised a hand in greeting and strode forward, not quite catching what she said to her sisters. Whatever it was had them turning as one to watch his approach.
"Hello, can we help you?" She called out to him, gliding forward a few inches before slipping and landing in a heap on the ice once again. This time she didn't laugh, though Mick was sure she wanted to.
"I'm Detective Mick Campbell. Stoneley Police Department."
"What can we do for you, Detective?" She struggled to her feet as her sisters started toward the edge of the pond.
"I'm investigating the death of Garrett McGraw. I've got a few questions I'd like to ask your family."
"According to the newspaper, Mr. McGraw was drunk and drove off a cliff. I don't see what that has to do with us." Bianca Blanchard stepped off the ice and sat on a wood bench, her dark eyes calm.
"Garrett McGraw was dead before his car went over the cliff."
"Heart attack?" Bianca pulled on boots and stood.
"He was murdered." Mick watched for a reaction, scanning the faces of each of the sisters, hoping to glimpse guilt or innocence in their expressions. His gaze was caught and held by the only sister still on the ice. She moved gingerly, wobbling on skates she obviously wasn't use to, her forehead creased with concentration. Unlike her sisters, she lacked a natural grace on ice, though her gentle beauty and guarded expression made Mick want to look closer.
"Murdered? Are you sure?" Bianca spoke, pulling Mick's attention back to the conversation.
"Unfortunately." Things would have been easier if the answer had been a different one. A man like McGraw made as many enemies as he did friends. Finding the person responsible for his death might prove difficult, though Mick was determined to do so. He owed his ex-partner that much.
"And you think this has something to do with our family?" It was Miranda who spoke this time, her concern obvious.
"Your father and aunt are waiting at the house. Why don't we discuss it there?"
"Why don't you tell us what you suspect? Then maybe we'll talk." Another one of the sisters spoke, her short hair spiking out from under the knit cap she wore.
"Because the house is a much warmer place to talk, Delia." Miranda pushed her feet into black snow boots.
"I, for one, could use a cup of coffee."
"Coffee would be good. Are you okay, Portia?" Bianca grabbed her skates and turned toward the pond. Mick followed the direction of her gaze, saw the skirtwearing sister still easing toward the edge of the ice.
"I'm fine. Just give me another minute."
Portia. He should have known. The name fit the woman, its exotic sound matching her interesting choice of clothes. Despite three years spent avoiding women and relationships, Mick was intrigued. As he watched, she stepped off the pond, her feet wobbling, her gaze on her sisters rather than the ground. He knew what would happen next and moved toward her.
A few questions he wanted to ask the family? The detective made it sound so innocuous, his relaxed manner belying the seriousness of what was happening. Obviously, if he didn't suspect her family was involved in Garrett McGraw's murder, Detective Campbell wouldn't be here. Portia tried to convey her fear silently to her sisters, but they all seemed intent on grabbing skates and moving toward the path that led back to Blanchard Manor. She'd have to say something. That was all there was to it. "I."
Before she could finish, her ankle twisted under her and she tripped, bracing herself for the third fall of the evening. Instead, hard fingers gripped her arm, pulling her upright. "Whoa! Careful."
"Thanks." Portia looked up into clear blue eyes and a face as cold and implacable as Maine in the winter. She didn't know what she'd been hoping for"compassion? Softness? Some sign that he wasn't here to destroy her family? It wasn't there.All she saw was determination and what looked like anger burning beneath his cool gaze.
"No problem." He stepped back, putting distance between them, though he watched her intently, as if waiting for her to stumble again. She hoped she'd disappoint him, but the skates twisted as she took an unsteady step toward the bench.
He grabbed her arm again. "Keep it up and you'll break your ankle."
"It wouldn't be the first time."
He stared into her eyes for a moment, then smiled, the slow upward curve of his lips causing her heart to stall and start up again.
"Why doesn't that surprise me?"
"Because you've seen how graceful I am?"
"Let me help you, Portia." Rissa grabbed her hand, squeezing twice, the silent communication they'd perfected as children and still used on occasion. What are you doing?
What was she doing? Her family might be in serious trouble, the business her grandfather had worked so hard for in for more of the bad publicity it had garnered a few weeks ago when Howard Blanchard had crashed his sister's sixtieth birthday party. The girls'grandfather and family patriarch, he'd once been the pillar of the community. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, his wild accusations and incoherent ramblings had made him tabloid news. The gossip was finally dying down. Portia wanted to keep it that way. Which was why she should not be joking with a man determined to dig up more trouble for her family.
She shot a look at her twin, shrugged her shoulder in response to her questioning look and hurried over to the bench, trying her best to ignore the detective as she fought with the laces on her skates. Unfortunately, he was hard to ignore, his intense stare making her fingers fumble on the laces.
Exasperated, she met his gaze. "You're welcome to head back to the house if I'm taking too long, Detective."
"I've got plenty of time." A half smile eased some of the intensity from his face, and Portia found herself studying the craggy planes and deep hollows of his cheeks, the dark stubble on his chin and the fine lines that fanned out from his eyes. The dim light couldn't hide his rough-edged good looks. He'd be an interesting subject to paint. Or better yet, to capture in charcoal.
He raised an eyebrow and she dropped her gaze, heat creeping up her neck and into her cheeks. She could sense his impatience, the impatience of her sisters who hovered at edge of the woods. By the time she finally managed to remove her skates and pull on her mukluks, her heart was pounding with anxiety, her stomach twisting with nerves. Murder. Just the word filled her with dread.
"Are we ready?" Rissa grabbed the skates from the place where Portia had dropped them. "I'm freezing."
"Me, too." Portia stood, started to follow her retreating sister and was pulled up short by a tug on her skirt. A jagged piece of wood had caught the silky material and she leaned down to free it as icy wind blasted across the clearing, knifing through the clothes she'd layered herself in. She shivered, tugged at the cloth.
"Let me help." The masculine voice sounded so close to her ear that Portia jumped, turning to face the detective who stood just inches away. His eyes were even bluer than she'd thought, his hair a short, spiky goldenbrown that looked as if it would be soft to the touch.
That she would even think such a thing had Portia stepping back, dropping her eyes away from his knowing gaze. "I thought you'd gone on ahead."
"And leave you out here by yourself?"
"It wouldn't be the first time I'd been out here alone."
"But it may be the first time you've been out here alone while a murderer wanders free." He leaned forward and peered at her skirt. "Why don't you let me do that for you?"
"Thanks, Detective, but I think I can handle it. And I really am okay out here alone." At least she always had been before. As a child, she'd often wandered the grounds of Blanchard Manor long after the sun had set, but the deepening twilight and dark woods suddenly seemed sinister and foreign.
"Everyone around here calls me Mick." As he spoke, he brushed her hands away from the material and worked it free.
"Mick, then. Thanks for the help. Again."
"No problem. Again. Come on. Let's catch up to your sisters." He offered his hand, his eyes hard to read in the fading light.
She hesitated and then linked her wool-covered fingers with his leather-covered ones. It was a bad idea. Holding hands with a man was high on her list of things she shouldn't ever do again. Hadn't that been how her relationship with Tad had started"a brush of his fingers against hers as they'd chatted about Jasmine's progress in the art class Portia was teaching? The next thing she knew, they were strolling through her artsand-crafts store laughing about something she couldn't even recall.
"Relax. I don't bite." His voice broke into her thoughts, the hint of laughter in it a surprise.
"Maybe not, but you are investigating my family and that makes me uncomfortable."
"Why? Do you have something to hide?" The laughter was still there, though Portia sensed an intensity to the words, a stillness to the man that let her know he was weighing her comments and responses.
"Then you've got nothing to worry about. Besides, I'm investigating a murder, not your family."