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TWO HUNDRED and twenty-eight suitors, she thought. Dear God, how would she ever manage, much less choose?
Blanche Harrington stood alone by one of the oversized windows in a small salon, outside the vast room where soon, the invasion of callers would begin. Just that morning, the black draperies that indicated she remained in mourning had come down. She had avoided marriage for eight years, but even she knew that with her father's death, she needed a husband to help her manage his considerable and complicated fortune.
But she dreaded the delugejust as she dreaded the future. Her best friend swept dramatically into the salon. "Blanche, darling, there you are! We are about to open the front doors!" she cried enthusiastically.
Blanche stared out of the window at the circular front drive. Her father had been awarded his title as viscount many years ago, having made an impossible fortune in manufacturing. It was so long ago that no one considered them nouveau riche. Blanche had never known any other life than one of wealth, privilege and splendor. She was one of the empire's greatest heiresses, but her father had allowed her to break off an engagement eight years ago, and although he had never stopped introducing her to suitors, he had wanted her to marry for love. It was an absurd notion, of course.
Not because no one married for love. It was absurd because Blanche knew she was incapable of falling in love.
But she would marry, because although Harrington had passed too swiftly to have verbalized a dying wishhe had been suddenly stricken with pneumoniaBlanche knew he wanted nothing more than to see her securely wed to an honorable gentleman.
Three dozen carriages littered her beautiful drive. There had been five hundred condolence calls six months ago. Of the cards left, 228 had belonged to eligible bachelors. Blanche was dismayed but resolved. How many of them were not fortune-hunting rogues? As she had long ago given up on ever loving any man, her intention now was to find one sensible, decent, noble man in the lot.
"Oh dear." Bess Waverly came up beside her. "You are broodingI know you better than you know yourselfwe have been friends since we were nine years old! Please do not tell me you wish to send everyone away when I have announced your period of mourning to be over. Is there a point in mourning for another six months? You will only delay the inevitable."
Blanche looked at her best friend. They were as different as night and day, and that was one of the reasons she loved her soand vice versa. Bess was dramatic, vivacious and sultry she was on her second husband and her twentieth lover, at leastand she made no pretense of the fact that she enjoyed every aspect of life, and that included as much passion as possible. Blanche was almost twenty-eight years old, she had chosen not to marry until now, and she remained a virgin. She found life pleasing enoughshe enjoyed walks in the park, shopping and teas, the opera and balls. But she had not a clue as to what passion was, or how it felt, not in any shape or form.
Her heart was entirely defective. It beat, but refused to entertain any extremes of emotion.
The sun was yellow, never gold. A comedy was amusing, never hilarious. Chocolate was sweet, but easily passed up. A buck might be handsome, but no one could take her breath away. She had never, not once in her entire life, wanted to be kissed.
Long ago she had realized she would never have the passion for life that a woman was supposed to have. But other women hadn't lost their mother in a riot at the tender age of six. She had been with her mother that Election Day, but she couldn't recall itand she couldn't recall her life before it, either. What was worse was that she didn't remember anything about her mother, and when she looked at her portrait hanging above the stairs, she saw a beautiful lady, but it was like looking at a stranger.
And vague, violent shadowy images of the past lived somewhere far back in her mind. They always had. She knew it the way some people claimed to know that they lived with a ghost, or the way a child knew that imaginary playmates lived in her bedroom. But it didn't matter, because she didn't want to ever identify those monsters. Besides, how many adults could recall their lives before the age of six?
However, she hadn't shed a tear in grief since the riot. Grief was beyond her heart's capabilities, too. Blanche was very aware of being different from other women, and it was her secret. Her father had known the entire truth and the reason for it. Her two best friends assumed she would one day become as passionate and insensible as they were. Her two best friends were waiting for her to fall wildly in love.
Blanche had always been sensible. She turned to Bess. "No, I do not see a point in delaying the inevitable. Father was sixty-four, and he had a wonderful life. He would want me to go forward now, as we have planned."
Bess put her arm around her. She had medium brown hair, spectacular green eyes, a lush figure and full lips which she claimed men adoredin more ways than one. As Bess loved to gossip about her lovers, Blanche knew exactly what she meant and could not imagine a woman doing such a thing.
Once, Blanche had wished she could be like Bessor even a watered-down version of her. Recently, she had realized that she was not going to change. No matter what life offered, she would sensibly and serenely navigate her course. There would be no drama, no torment, and certainly, no passion.
"Yes, he would. You have spent your entire life hiding from life," Bess said pointedly. Blanche began to object, but Bess went determinedly on. "As tragic as it is, Harrington is dead.You have no excuses left, Blanche. He certainly is not here for you to dote on. If you continue to hide, you will be entirely alone."
It was incredible, but she felt almost nothing at the mention of her father's name. She was numb when she should have wept and sobbedshe had been numb since his death. The sorrow was a gentle wave, and it was very nearly painless. She missed himhow could she not? He had been the anchor of her life ever since that terrible day when her mother had died.
If only she could weep in grief and outrage. But only a few drops of moisture ever gathered in her eyes.
Blanche smiled grimly, leaving the window. "I am not hiding, Bess. No one entertains as much as I do."
"You have been hiding from passion and pleasure," Bess cried.
Blanche had to smile. They had argued over this too many times to count. "I am not passionate by nature," she said softly. "And Father is gone, but thank God I have you and Felicia," she said with a small smile. "I dote upon you both. I do not know what I would do without you."
Bess rolled her eyes. "We are going to find you a handsome young buck to dote on, Blanche, so you can finally live your life! Just think of it! Over two hundred suitorsand you have your choice!"
Blanche felt a frisson of uncertainty at the thought. "I dread the onslaught," she said truthfully. "How will I ever choose? We both know they are all fortune hunters and Father wished for more for me than that."
"Hmm, I can think of nothing better than a fortune-hunting twenty-five-year-old rake! As long as he is obscenely handsome" she grinned "and even more virile."
Blanche gave her a look and, accustomed to such outrageous remarks, did not blush. "Bess."
"You will be happy when you have a virile husband, dear, you may trust me on that. Who knows? Your blasé indifference to all of life's offerings may suddenly vanish."
Blanche had to smile, but she shook her head. "That would be a miracle."
"A good dose of passion can be quite miraculous!" Bess sobered. "I am trying to cheer you up. Felicia and I will help you choose, unless, of course, there is a real miracle and you fall in love."
"We both know that isn't going to happen. Bess, do not look so glum! I have had a nearly perfect life. I have been blessed with so much."
Bess shook her head, as anguished now as she had been happy a scant instant ago. "Never say never! Even though you have never been in love, I will continue to hope. Oh, Blanche. You have no idea what you are missing. I know you believe your life to have been perfect until Harrington passed, but I know better. You are an island unto yourself and the loneliest person I know."
Blanche stiffened. "Bess, this day is difficult enough, with all those suitors queued up at my front door."
"You were lonely before Harrington passed and you are even lonelier now. I hate seeing you alone and I believe marriage and children will change that." Bess was firm.
Blanche tensed. She wanted to deny it, but Bess was right.
No matter how many calls she made, how many callers she had, how many parties she gave, how many balls she attended, she was different and she knew it acutely. In fact, she always felt separate and detached from those around her.
"Bess, I don't mind being alone." That was the truth. "I know you cannot understand it. I will be terribly honest now. I feel certain that when I marry, I will still be alone, in spirit, anyway."
"You will not be alone in spirit when you have children." Blanche smiled. "A child would be nice." Bess had two children she adoredin spite of her affairs, she was a wonderful mother. "However, even though you have this fantastical notion of matching me to some very young buck, I want someone older, someone middle-aged. He must be kind, strong in character. He must be a true gentleman."
"Of course you want someone older who will spoil you terriblyyou wish to replace your father." Bess sighed. "We are not replacing your father, Blanche. Your husband must be young and attractive! Now, that solved, may I have the choice of your leftovers?"
Blanche laughed softly at the idea and knew Bess really wished to find a new lover from amongst her two-hundred-odd suitors.
"Of course." Blanche walked away. She couldn't help it, but now, at this eleventh hour, when she thought about her suitors, a dark, brooding image came to mind. One eligible bachelor had not called. Not only hadn't he called, he hadn't even offered his condolences six months ago.
Blanche did not want to continue her line of thought. And very fortunately, her second best friend hurried into the room. Felicia had recently married her third husband, her previous husband having been a young, handsome and very reckless equestrian who had died jumping a terribly risky fence. "Jamieson is opening up the front door, my dears!" she cried with a smile. "Oh, Blanche, I am so happy to see you out of that drab black. The dove gray suits you so much better."
And Blanche heard the sound of dozens of male voices and footsteps. Her stomach dropped. The hordes had arrived.