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We commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the groundearth to eartha ashes to ashes dust to dust
The preacher's voice droned on, but Willa Merris's heart hurt too much for her to hear the rest. Her father, Senator John Merris, was dead. Truly gone. Murdered. And even though his body had been discovered nearly two weeks ago, the finality of it had waited until this exact moment to slam into her like a ton of bricks.
Despair weighed on her until she could hardly breathe. What were she and her mother going to do? He had always been the center of their universe, the two of them pale moons orbiting his brilliant life.
A thud startled her. Her mother had just tossed a tightly balled clod of red Texas clay on top of the casket. The dirt in her own hand was cold and moist, squishing out of her clenched fist. Blinded by tears, Willa tossed her clod of dirt into the hole that contained her father's mortal remains.
She shuddered as dozens of other mourners stepped forward to toss handfuls of dirt on her father's grave. Some of them appeared genuinely sad, but the majority ranged from indifferent to covertly satisfied to bury the bastard. She had no illusions that her father had been a saint. Far from it. He'd been a mean man in a mean businesstwo mean businessesa wildcat oilman carving a fortune out of the oil sands of West Texas, and a United States senator, brawling in the halls of Congress.
A comforting arm slipped around her shoulders. She leaned into the embrace for a moment, but then caught a whiff of the aftershave and stiffened. No. Surely not. Horror flowed through her. That, and sheer, frozen terror. She glanced up at the sympathetic face of James Ward, the son of her father's longtime business partner.
"Get away from me this second," she cried. "Don't touch me!"
The people around her jolted, shocked by her outburst. She slipped out from under Ward's arm as he stared at her, dumbfounded. Right. Like he didn't know exactly what she was talking about.
Flashes of his big hands tearing her clothes viciously slapping the fight out of her, shoving her to the floor of her living room and, oh, God, the pain of his big body slamming into hers over and over. His grunts the maniacal gleam in his glittering blue eyes the humiliation and utter degradation of it
She'd wanted to die. Right there where he'd left her on the floor like some piece of tossed-off garbage. She'd wished desperately to disappear, to just cease to exist. But no such luck. Instead, her father had checked out of his mortal coil and left behind the mess of his life for her to unravel in addition to hers.
"Honey," Ward murmured. "You're overwrought. Let me drive you home. Put you to bed."
Overwrought? Something inside her cracked. She'd show him overwrought! "Get away from me!" she screeched.
Backpedaling from him with her hands outstretched to fend him off, she registered vaguely how everyone had gone stock-still around her. It was as if time had stopped with everyone in funny poses, staring at her slack-jawed as if she'd grown a second head.
"I swear, if you lay a hand on me again, I'll kill you!" she shouted at Ward in rage she didn't even know she had inside her. "Do you hear me? I'll kill you!"
The vignette unfroze all at once with a rush of reaching hands and concerned faces closing in on her like macabre, black-clad clowns. Camera bulbs flashed, cell phones whipped out to arm's length, pointed at her. Even the local news reporter frantically gestured at her cameraman to get all this on film.
Appalled, humiliated and so irrationally furious she scared herself, Willa batted away the hands, shoved through the crowd and broke into a stumbling half run toward her car. The grass and her high-heeled shoes were a lethal combination and she nearly broke her neck before she fetched up hard against her car door breathing heavily. She felt dirty. A driving compulsion to wash away the feel of James Ward's filthy touch overwhelmed her. She had to get home. Take a hot shower. Scrub herself clean.
Willa stabbed at the car's ignition button and nearly ran down the news reporter as she accelerated away from her father's disaster of a funeral, frantic to escape this nightmare from which there was no waking.
Gabe Dawson watched the slender, black-veiled woman race away from John Merris's grave. What was that all about? He hadn't been close enough to hear the commotion, but it had been hard to miss. An angry buzz of gossip hummed around him something about the senator's daughter threatening to kill someone .
Quiet little Willa Merris? Alarm blossomed in his gut. Was she in danger? The girl he remembered wouldn't say boo to a mouse. But then, he hadn't seen her in over a decade. She'd been a skinny, awkward teen the last time he'd visited the Merris home. Before his falling out with John Merris. Before the two of them became mortal enemies.
At least Willa's outburst had drawn the attention of the rumormongers away from his arrival at the funeral. As it was, he was sure to be topic number one in the gossip columns for showing up at John Merris's grave. He would probably be accused of coming here to gloat. In point of fact, he hadn't wished the old man dead. Plenty of suffering and failure, yes. But not death.
The preacher mumbled a few more words into the suddenly circuslike atmosphere, but no one was paying attention. Seeming to sense it, the minister cut short and wrapped up the graveside service with unseemly haste. Gabe watched in sardonic amusement as the good ladies of Vengeance, Texas, wasted no time texting and calling their friends to report the latest scandal surrounding the lurid death of John Merris. Vultures.
He jolted as a microphone materialized under his nose. "Have you got any comment on Willa Merris's outburst, Mr. Dawson? You're Senator Merris's former business partner, are you not?" a female reporter demanded.
She looked as avidly entertained as the vultures. More so.
"No comment," he growled. He strode away from the woman, but she walk-ran beside him, continuing to shove that damned microphone in front of him.
"What do you have to say about John Merris's murder? Some people are saying you're more pleased than anyone that the senator is dead. Is it true you two had a violent argument just a few weeks ago?"
He stonily ignored the reporter and her sleazy in-nuendos.
"Is it true that the police have asked you not to leave town, and that you're a person of interest in the senator's murder?"
He stopped at that, turned slowly and gave her the flat, pitiless stare that had earned him his reputation as a hard man among hard men. The reporter recoiled from him with a huff. Smart girl.
"What did you say your name was?" he called after her as she stomped away from him.
She half turned and snapped. "Paula Craddock. KVXT News. Are you going to give me a statement?"
"Nope. Just wanted to know who to sic my lawyers on the next time you harass me."
The journalist's gaze narrowed to a threatening glare.
Yeah, whatever. Better women than she had tried to get a rise out of him over the years. But he wasn't the founder and CEO of a billion-dollar oil conglomerate for nothing. He chewed up and spit out self-serving leeches like her for breakfast.
Meanwhile, the alarm in his gut refused to quiet. What had caused Willa Merris to blow up at her own father's funeral? She and her mother were always the souls of decorum, quiet props in the background of Senator Merris's many public appearances. Willa had been trained practically from birth how not to draw attention to herself. It was unthinkable that she would cause a scene, ever, let alone in public, in front of the press, and most definitely not at a somber occasion like this. What had gotten into her?
Worry for the unpleasant conversation he had yet to have with young Willa flashed through his head. Maybe he should wait awhile to break his own bad news to her and her mother. But it wasn't like there was ever going to be a good time to tell them John Merris's last, nasty little secret.
He sighed. Lord, this was going to suck. He might as well go find Willa Merris now and make her misery complete.
No matter how long she stood under the water, nor how hot the water was, Willa never felt entirely clean anymore. But as the shower went from tepid to icy cold, she reluctantly climbed out. She felt like the fragile little handblown glass horse figurine she'd gotten somewhere as a child. At the slightest touch, she was going to shatter into a million knife-sharp pieces.
She'd give anything not to have to face the world for a good, long time. Or better, to leave this place and never, ever come back. But duty drove that rebellious thought back into her subconscious nearly as quickly as it had surfaced. God knew why, but her father had named her executor of his estate, which meant she was trapped in this town for months to come.
The doorbell echoed far away in her parents' mansion. Someone else would get itLouise, their longtime housekeeper, or maybe Larry Shore, her father's new chief of staff and right-hand man since the old one, Frank Kellerman, wound up in jail for covering up her father's sins.
Despite the ninety-degree weather, an impulse to cover as much skin as possible overcame her. She pulled on a pair of light wool slacks and a long-sleeved cashmere sweater. She skipped her usual French twist and merely pushed her strawberry-blond hair off her face with a simple headband. My, my. More rebellion, Miss Merris? Leaving your hair down? Scandalous. Making a wry face at her reflection in the mirror, she put on just enough makeup not to look like a corpse, herself.
A knock on her bedroom door startled her. "Miss Willa. You've got a visitor," Louise announced, her voice laced with heavy disapproval.
Willa allowed herself a mental groan. Decorum dictated that she receive each and every one of the endless stream of her father's business associates offering condolences and, of course, the avid gossip seekers disguised as neighbors and family friends. But the strain of it was getting to her. The constant visitors never gave her a moment's escape from the oppressive grief pervading the house.
If they would all just give her a minute to breathe, to blank her mind and forget everything, maybe she could get her mental feet under her. Start tackling the mountain of decisions piling up around her. She closed her eyes for a moment to gather strength and replied. "Show our visitor into the library. I'll be right down."
She checked her appearance in the mirror and drew up short. She looked haggard. Father wouldn't approve at all. Her train of thought derailed. Her father was dead, and she was no longer obligated to look like a poster child for his endless political campaigns. A surprising and overwhelming sense of relief flooded her. She could go without makeup if she wanted. And wear sloppy T-shirts and jeans. She could say what came to mind without first checking the comment against her father's political platform. So giddy she almost felt ill, she giggled a little hysterically.
Pull it together, girlfriend. There were still a few social boundaries she would not cross. Like not acting properly bereaved at her father's passing.
She hurried down the grand, sweeping staircase to the marble-tiled foyer. Her parents' house was designed for maximum "impress the guests" factor. Personally, she found it gaudy and overbearing. But then, that had been her father. She much preferred her sweet two-bedroom cottage across town by the college.
She opened the oversize walnut doors into the library and stopped cold as she spied her visitor. She would recognize those broad shoulders, that rugged profile, the casual confidence anywhere. Gabe Dawson.
It had been years since she'd seen him. A wash of memory heated her cheeks. As a teen, she'd had the mother of all crushes on this man. He had been by far the most handsome and dashing male she'd ever laid eyes on. And good golly, Miss Molly, he still was. Of course, he'd never given her the time of day. When he had bothered to speak to her at all back then, it had been to ruffle her hair like she was an amusing puppy, and call her something demeaning like "squirt."
But that had been a long time ago. She wasn't that innocent kid anymore. And hehe wasn't that impetuous, up-and-coming geologist who dared to challenge the established rules for how oil was explored.
He was standing with one elbow propped on the mantel, staring down into the cold, gray ashes of the fireplace. A half-consumed glass of bourbon dangled in his other hand. In this unguarded moment, he looked sad. Worried. Lonely, even.
Her heart went out to him before her conscious mind registered the irony of this man's presence in her father's inner sanctum. Gabe Dawson and John Merris had been like matter and antimatter. Any time they crossed paths, they erupted in a fiery explosion that consumed everything and everyone around them.
She stepped farther into the room, clearing her throat as she did so. Gabe turned sharply to face her with the barely contained energy she remembered. Being in the same room with him was still like standing next to a hurricane.
She registered a few changes, though, as he met her in the middle of the spacious library. His clothes were more expensive, and fit better these days. His hair was shorter but still looked tousled like someone had just run a hand through it. His eyes oh, my. They were still that dark, mysterious shade of green that looked right through her. Although at the moment, she saw reticence in them.
An urge to stutter and blush like a schoolgirl nearly won out over a lifetime's worth of ingrained manners, but she only fought it off by dint of long years of concealing her true thoughts and feelings.
"Gabe Dawson. What a pleasant surprise," she said smoothly. "Can I get you a refill on your drink? Is it still Kentucky bourbon, neat?"
He waved off the drink offer and set down his glass on a side table. His gaze slid down her body to her toes and back up to her face quickly enough not to be offensive, but with enough thoroughness to send a wave of heat coursing through herand a shiver of apprehension. He always had skirted the edges of impropriety in the most delicious way. Rhett Butler, move over.
"How are you doing?" he asked, his voice every bit as potent as she remembered. The passing years had given it a richness, a maturity, that tasted good on her tongue. Oh, my.
She sank onto the edge of one of the big leather wing-back chairs and gestured him into the matching one. He leaned forward in it, propping his elbows on his knees to study at her intently. It was unnerving being the subject of such intense scrutiny. But then he'd always had that effect on her. She restrained an urge to pat her hair and tug at the neck of her sweater. Instead, she folded her hands in her lap and nearly crushed her own fingers.
The monstrous impropriety of his being here occurred to her. How dare he intrude upon her family on this day of mourning and loss? He'd hated her father. Done his damnedest to ruin John Merris. Abruptly, his presence grated like sandpaper on her skin. He had no right to be here.
She gritted her teeth, her training in being polite to everyone in all cases rubbing raw against an urge to scream and rail at this man. Although truth be told, her need to scream at the top of her lungs wasn't all about him. She risked a glance at him, and felt awkward heat bloom in her cheeks. Lord, this man discombobulated her.
She stared down at her tightly twined fingers and very belatedly answered his question. "My mother and I are doing as well as expected after such a shock," she said automatically, for the hundredth time. "Thank you for coming."
"You don't have to put on a show for me, Willa."
Her gaze snapped up to his. "I beg your pardon?"