ONCE upon a time, in a town not so far away, lived a family by the name of Darling. They lived in a large house that had been passed down from generation to generation in the Darling family. The neighborhood was quiet, on the outskirts of a wooded area and a lake.
Laufia, the Darling matriarch, was well respected in the community. She stood tall and proud, her wavy blonde hair cropped short, and her clothing severely structured. Despite her austere appearance, Laufia's smile could make a room feel bright and warm and she was quite soft spoken.
Her eldest daughter was named Norma. Norma resembled her mother greatly, except for long hair and her eyes; Norma's eyes were dark brown while Laufia sported pale blue irises. She recently left the town of Swallowtail to attend university. Even though the oldest Darling daughter was never outspoken, her absence was largely noticed at the library where she volunteered, and around the neighborhood where she would often ride her bicycle.
Natasha, who went by Nat, was two years younger than her sister Norma. She too looked very much like her mother and sister. Stepsister Daphne was the same age as Nat, each of them involved with the yearbook at Swallowtail High School.
Rhiannon was fifteen years old, another stepdaughter from Laufia's second marriage. Rhia was on the girl's high school soccer team. Before that, she had tried basketball, softball, tennis, and volleyball. Rhia and her father's entrance into the Darling family gave the busybodies of Swallowtail something to wag their tongues about as it was the town's first biracial marriage. Most of the gossip died down after the untimely death of Laufia's second husband.
Kerri, age fourteen, was the biological sister of Daphne and another stepdaughter from Laufia's third marriage. Kerri practiced ballet at Swallowtail's largest dance studio.
The entire family entered the public eye every Sunday when they made their appearance at the original Swallowtail Protestant Church, which was built when the town was first settled.
This is the image everyone saw: a charming, happy family that overcame great hardship. But as everyone knows, people are not always who they appear to be. With this in mind, you are invited, dear Reader, to meet the Darlings.
1. The Kingsleys Come to Stay
ELLA Kingsley sat in the passenger seat of her father's maroon minivan. The two had just entered the town of Swallowtail after driving for an hour and thirty minutes from their previous home. Byron Kingsley had already made several trips to the Darling residence in order to transfer the bulk of their possessions. Now the last thing left to move was his one and only child.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Ella was such a beautiful young woman; she couldn't possibly know how beautiful she was, which sometimes scared Byron.
"I'm proud of you, you know," he said and refocused on the road.
Ella snorted. "Really? I wasn't sure, because you've only told me about a million times this week." Worried that he upset her, Byron looked at his daughter quickly, and he was relieved to see her smiling. She laughed at the concerned expression on his face.
"I'm serious," he insisted. "You have been terrific throughout this entire process. I know that it took a while for you to embrace the idea of me getting remarried, but I don't think any other fifteen-year-old could have handled this more maturely than you have."
The minivan came to a three way intersection. The turn signal clicked three or four times before Byron turned to the right, and the pavement abruptly ended. Dirt and rocks crunch beneath the vehicle, and rock Byron and Ella in their seats.
"Have you met them, Laufia's daughters?" Ella asked and bit the inside of her cheek nervously.
Byron nodded. "A few times. They're lovely girls, all five of them." He noticed the change in his daughter's demeanor as she shifted her weight and crossed and uncrossed her arms. "You're a lovely girl, too," he told her with a smile. "I am 110 percent positive that they will like you."
A green sign that had begun to rust announced that the left turn that the minivan was about to execute led to private property. This was it.
The woods seemed to close in around them as Ella watched out the window. Spiny pine trees made the woods look thick and dense; tall deciduous trees loomed overhead, creating a canopy that filtered the sunlight, dappling the driveway with watery patterns; the underbrush was abundant with flowery bushes and dozens upon dozens of fern plants.
Suddenly, the pavement reappeared as Byron turned a corner. Ella gazed through the windshield in awe as the most massive house she had ever seen came into view. The minivan coasted along the roundabout driveway, giving both occupants of the vehicle a satisfactory look at the mansion's dark brickwork and the fairytale-esque turrets.
Standing by the impressive front doors, at the bottom of the porch, were three smiling faces all in a row, all of them girls. Ella watched them, waiting for them to blink, but each girl stood completely still, their eyes flickering toward the minivan. By the girls' sides was a tall blonde woman; she managed to convey the image of being pleasant without appearing to be somewhat creepy, a feat that her daughters hadn't mastered.
Byron put the minivan in park and stepped out of the car. Laufia Darling smiled and met him halfway, kissing his cheek. Byron looked back at Ella over his shoulder and beckoned to her. Laufia locked her startling blue eyes on Ella expectantly.
Ella gulped. What if Laufia tried to hug or kiss her? She didn't think she was ready for that. Once she was out of the minivan, a cool breeze caressed her skin and she could hear birds chirping pleasantly.
"Byron!" Laufia exclaimed. "You didn't tell me that your daughter was so pretty."
Ella was surprised to hear the soft quality in her new stepmother's voice. It belied her stiff appearance and the sharp angles of her cheekbones. Laufia approached her and took Ella's face delicately between her manicured hands.
"Such beautiful hair, too," she said and fingered a lock of Ella's wavy brown hair. "A brunette. Your father is so fair that I was worried you might be blonde."
Ella breathed a sigh of relief when Laufia let her hands fall away from her face. There was an awkward pause before Ella replied with a hesitant thank you.
"Okay!" Byron said loudly and clapped his hands, dispelling the tension. "Let me test my memory." He turned to the three girls and pointed to one of the blondes, stylishly dressed in skinny jeans and a pink tank top that flowed to her hips. "You're Natasha – sorry, Nat. I caught myself that time."
He turned to the next girl. She was African American with short curly hair, wearing jeans like her stepsister, and a t-shirt with the sleeves rolled advertising the high school soccer team. "You're Rhiannon, and you are Kerri, correct?" The question was directed to the last girl, who was also blonde and wore her hair in a tight bun high on her head. She was taller than the others with long, thin legs.
"Nice to see you again, Mr. Kingsley," said the first girl, Nat. Her face broke into a brilliant smile, flashing a set of perfect teeth that made Ella squirm self-consciously. The other two girls expressed similar sentiments, all of them showing off their charming smiles.
Byron turned to his new wife. "I think you're missing two daughters."
"That's right," Laufia said and took Byron's hands gently. "Norma just finished her first year at college. Daphne left yesterday to pick her up, so they should be home sometime this evening." She looked at Ella again and cast the newest member of her family a motherly smile that made her eyes crinkle. "Are your bags still in the car?"
Ella nodded. "In the backseat."
"Girls." Laufia's voice suddenly became more authoritative, and Ella noticed Nat, Rhiannon, and Kerri's posture straighten almost imperceptibly, as if they were being addressed by a drill sergeant. "Why don't you help Ella carry her things inside and help her get settled?" Laufia took Byron by the elbow and began tugging him toward the front doors as she whispered in his ear, "You and I have some catching up to do."
As soon as Laufia and Byron disappeared inside the mansion, the atmosphere immediately did a 180. The forced cheerfulness dissipated. Kerri's face drooped into a bored expression, and she crossed her arms and slouched while the other two converged on the minivan. Rhiannon did an imitation of a marching soldier as Nat pulled the side door open.
"Backs straight, chins up, happy faces!" Rhiannon said in an almost perfect imitation of Laufia's soft yet authoritative voice. Nat doubled over with laughter as she grabbed two of Ella's duffle bags and tossed the third to Rhiannon.
"I swear," Nat said as she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, "one of these days I'm going to make us all smiling masks."
"At least that way we could rest our cheek muscles," Rhiannon agreed and followed her stepsister up the porch steps. Ella closed the van door that the other two had seemingly forgotten about. Kerri still stood with her arms crossed and stared at Ella. She edged around Kerri awkwardly, and then hurried to catch up with Nat and Rhiannon; by the pace they set, they made it very clear that they would not wait up for Ella if she chose to dawdle.
Ella followed Nat and Rhiannon into a spacious foyer covered in dark wood and warm tones of red. An impressive chandelier hung above her head over the entrance to the mansion, but it wasn't lit; a wide staircase was the main display in the foyer, and the adjacent wall was a large picturesque window that allowed light to stream inside.
Nat and Rhiannon started to jog up the stairs, still chatting and laughing. Ella stood at the foot of the staircase, her jaw dropped in awe. Rhiannon stopped on the first landing and looked down at her.
"Keep up, Kingsley!"
Ella snapped back to attention and saw Rhiannon grinning at her. She hurried her pace and ran after her stepsisters.
The drive to Swallowtail was relatively quiet save for the white noise of some country radio station. Norma Darling had to hold the thin strands of blonde hair out of her face; the passenger window was rolled down since the air conditioner in Daphne's car was out of commission. Daphne's red hair was pulled back into a French braid, and Norma wished that her favorite stepsister had warned her to do something with her own hair before they left.
"Ready to be home?" Daphne asked Norma, momentarily taking her eyes off the sleepy country highway to turn down the volume.
Norma shrugged. "That depends. Is Mom pissed at me?"
"Definitely. She's been like a ticking time bomb all year."
"And a new stepdad and stepsister to put the cherry on top of what is sure to be an unpleasant reunion."
Daphne laughed. "That's the spirit. Way to stay positive."
The car rounded a curve in the road, and the lake disappeared behind a wall of leafy green and brown bark. The next landmark they would pass before arriving at the Darling mansion was a field full of tall grass and a quaint farm house that had been empty for the last three years. Norma's heartbeat quickened the nearer they drew; seeing her mother again was something she looked forward to yet at the same time dreaded fiercely.
The dense trees gave way to the expansive field. Norma's eyes skimmed over the property, vaguely taking in the landscape. Daphne frowned and leaned closer to the passenger seat.
"Is that a U-Haul truck?"
Norma's eyes flitted to the farm house. It was indeed a U-Haul truck parked in the driveway. She squinted and spotted a glimpse of two movers lifting an armchair. A lump formed in her throat. After three years, the Meyers' family had finally decided to sell the property.
"Who bought the house?" she asked.
"Hold on," Daphne said, "I'll use my long distance mind reading powers to find out." She screwed up her face for a moment in mock concentration, and then rolled her eyes. "I've been with you for the past two days, Norma. When would I have met the new neighbors?"
"Does Mom know about this?"
"Probably, but don't quote me on that. I try to keep my nose out of Laufia's business."
Norma's gut did a little flip flop and then tied itself into a knot. She wished she had the luxury of not knowing her mother's business. Daphne turned up the volume on the radio again and began to whistle along with the melody, just as carefree as she had been two minutes ago.
The farm house was soon out of sight, but it was far from being out of Norma's mind. If somebody was moving into the Meyers' old house, that could spell trouble; just what she needed to kick off her summer.
The dining room was by far the most elegant and extravagant room in the Darling mansion that Ella had seen thus far. The room was light and airy; the featured piece being a long dining table covered by a tablecloth the color of red wine. It was nice to look at, but not really Ella's taste – too formal for a teenager who had spent most of her life in an apartment.
Her dad sat at the middle of the table next to Laufia and across from Ella. Nat and Rhiannon sat one either side of her, and Kerri sat next to Byron. The other two daughters that had been absent earlier, Norma and Daphne, had arrived about twenty minutes before supper. Norma, Ella learned, was the oldest since she was almost nineteen. Her hair looked distinctly windswept even after she had had twenty minutes to tame it. She sat on Laufia's other side and hardly looked up from her plate. She had yet to make eye contact with Ella and Byron.
Daphne was a red head with a dusting of freckles across her face. Ella felt easy around her as she gave off the impression of being more laid back and less petty than the others. However, Ella was beginning to have doubts about her judgment since Daphne didn't seem the least bit interested in getting to know her.
There was clearly tension around the table, more tension than Ella initially expected walking into a family that she had never met before. Byron and Daphne did their best to dissipate the awkwardness; every once and a while they got a laugh or a giggle out of one of the girls, but for the most part the unease remained felt by everyone.
It was shy Norma, of all people, who broke the figurative ice.
"Daphne and I saw people at the Meyers' old house on our way here." This caught Laufia's attention. Byron leaned forward to look at Norma.
"Who are the Meyers?"
"They were our neighbors years ago," Laufia said. "A sweet older couple. They went missing about three years ago. Their family, until recently apparently, has refused to sell their house. The whole affair was very tragic."
"The police don't have any idea what happened to them?" Byron asked, appearing slightly concerned.
"Well," Laufia said and prodded at the rare steak on her china plate. "They have some ideas, but none of them are very pleasant, and they are certainly not appropriate dinner conversation topics.
"On a more cheerful note, Norma, dear, have you had a chance to -"
"Did someone kill them?"
All activity at the table ceased and everyone's attention became fixated on Ella. Laufia's mouth was still open, but the words were dead on her lips. Her eyes narrowed in Ella's direction, and Ella wondered if she had just made a very grave mistake.
"Why would you say something like that?" Laufia asked her in that deceptively soft voice and her visage became one of kind curiosity.
Ella gulped and found she couldn't speak past the knot that had risen up in her throat. Byron chuckled, trying to bring some levity back to the room.
"Well, honey," He said, "you did infer that the cops had some violent theories."
"I did." Laufia's gaze never left Ella. She sent the girl a maternal smile. "That is indeed what the police suspect happened to the poor Meyers. How very astute of you, Ella, darling." Laufia finally broke her stare, and Ella felt as though a weight had been lifted from her chest.
Laufia Darling took her glass of water and raised it in her stepdaughter's direction. "To the newest edition to our family." Laufia's cold blue eyes locked with Ella's green ones. "Byron's daughter Ella Kingsley. I think I am going to like you very much."