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The tips of black four-inch heels sank into the soft earth, blades of grass fanning around the base of the slim pedestals. The shoes were the first things he noticed about her, but now his eyes traveled upward, taking in the thin, gold ankle bracelet underneath stockings so sheer they were almost invisible.
Her black skirt was shorter than most in this small town deemed decent for such an occasion. It hugged her hips and cupped her perfect rear end. His eyes continued their slow trek, passed her delicately rounded shoulders, to her unyielding neck and finally to the wide-brimmed black hat tilted at an angle atop her proud head.
Mya Dubois stood before the charcoal-gray casket holding a single-stemmed white rose he'd seen her slip from the generous spray draping the head end of the casket. She'd stood in that same position for the past ten minutes, preventing the cemetery workers from lowering the coffin into the ground. He'd caught several shared looks of agitation between the workers, but they seemed resigned to it. They must be used to guilt-laden family members holding up their day.
Corey Anderson pushed away from the wall of the stone mausoleum he'd been resting against and walked over to where she stood, stopping a foot behind her.
"Welcome back home, Peaches."
Her back became even straighter, that proud neck stiffening even more.
"And here I was hoping to get through the day without speaking to you," Mya said without turning around, her bland words laced with sarcasm.
"And here I was hoping you'd left that sass back in New York City," Corey replied, unable to keep the tinge of amusement from his voice. Not really appropriate given where they were standing. "Come on, Peaches. These guys need to finish their work."
"Can I finish saying goodbye to my grandfather?" she snapped.
Corey looked over at the two workers. One held up his gloved hands in a "what can you do?" gesture. He heard a delicate sniff, and Corey's heart softened just a bit as he saw Mya's shaking hand wipe at the trail of tears that had begun cascading down her cheek.
She looked over at the two cemetery workers. "Thank you for waiting." Then she did an about-face and headed in the direction of the church hall.
Corey was next to her in three strides. "Mind if I attempt to be a gentleman and escort you?"
"I can manage," she answered.
"Peaches, don't be this way."
She stopped and turned. She sauntered up to him, one delicate brow raised over her topaz-colored eyes. "That's the last time I hear you say the word peaches,''' she said with quiet warning. "Even if you're eating one, you'd better call it a plum. You hear me?"
This time Corey didn't try to stop the smile from pulling at the corner of his mouth. Very few people in the small town of Gauthier, Louisiana, could talk to him in that tone of voice and get away with it.
And only one could look so good while doing it.
Damn, he'd missed her. As far as he knew, this was Mya's first trip back to Gauthier since she'd left over fifteen years ago, and Corey doubted she would stay one minute longer than necessary. She probably had her boarding pass tucked inside that little black purse she'd been clutching throughout her grandfather's funeral service.
Mya took off again for the church hall. Corey followed a few steps behind, admiring the view. How she managed to balance on those sexy heels once they reached the gravel parking lot was beyond his comprehension, but that was the case with just about everything Mya Dubois had ever done in her life. Why should this be any different?
Mya pushed off with her toe, setting the porch swing on a gentle sway. Her iced tea had grown watery, but she sipped anyway, hoping to quell the heat.
"Springtime in Louisiana," Mya murmured as she used her forehead to wipe condensation from the glass. She could go back into the air-conditioned house, but the atmosphere in there was more oppressing than these record-high temperatures.
Mya knew she should have booked her flight for this afternoon. Guilt had forced her to add another day to her trip, but with Elizabeth milking the grieving-daughter role for all it was worth and the houseful of nosy neighbors prying into her life, Mya wanted nothing more than to be on a flight back to New York.
Maybe she could come back in a few weeks. Then she could sit back and enjoy a rare visit back home with her grandparents.
Her grandmother. Granddad was no longer here.
Mya took another sip of tea. It had a hard time flowing past the lump in her throat. Maybe she should go back in the house. She'd rather be curled up in Granddad's old recliner, inhaling the scent of his pipe smoke. But the thought of facing the dozens of townsfolk who'd followed them back to the house after the repast at the church hall kept her butt planted firmly on the swing.
If she had to hear one more I'm so sorry for your loss, she would start screaming and never stop, which was why she'd changed into a pair of khaki capris and a sleeveless V-neck tee and had escaped to the porch nearly an hour ago. Mya welcomed the solitude like the unexpected breeze that blew every so often. She knew she should be social and help entertain the well-wishers who'd come to help her family grieve, but her grandma, Aunt Maureen and her mother, Elizabeth, were in there, and if there was one thing Elizabeth Dubois knew how to do, it was work a crowd.
Mya heard the squeak of the screen door's hinges, followed moments later by, "What are you doing out here?"
Speak of the devil. Still wearing her Prada pumps, no doubt.
"I'm enjoying this nice spring day," Mya answered with a drawl as her mother walked over to the swing.
"Nice?" Elizabeth scoffed. "It feels as if it's a hundred degrees out here. Al Gore warned everyone about global warming."
Mya rolled her eyes, placing her glass of iced tea on the thick railing that ran across the top of the porch.
Her mother waited for the swing to sway forward then sat on the opposite end from Mya. "So, how's it been, honey?" She patted Mya's knee as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the two of them to chitchat like a normal mother and daughter. Normal and Elizabeth Dubois should never be used in the same sentence.
"Let's not do this," Mya implored.
"I'm just trying to make conversation," her mother said in that prim and proper way that went down Mya's spine like fingernails on a chalkboard.
"When you have to try, that's a good indication that two people probably shouldn't be conversing."
Elizabeth's perfectly made-up face twisted with reproach. "When did you become so angry?"
Mya squinted as if thinking hard. "Around 2007 or so. March, if I remember correctly. Snagged my favorite panty hose on the subway. Everything's just gone downhill since then."
Her mother stood. "I don't know why I even try to talk to you."
"Makes two of us," Mya murmured underneath her breath. She watched her mother walk back through the door she'd just come from, her entire body heaving a sigh of relief.
Even if she were up for drama today, she still wouldn't give Elizabeth the satisfaction. A post-funeral catfight would be the hand her mother fanned. She would play the victim card until its edges were tattered.
Mya pushed the swing again, then brought her other leg up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her head on her knees.
She wasn't an angry person; Elizabeth just brought out the worst in her. Always had. Mya knew it wasn't healthy to hold such a long-standing grudge, but despite many attempts, she just could not let go of the resentment she felt toward her mother.
Maybe if she had ever, just once, sensed an ounce of regret in Elizabeth for walking away from her own child.
"Yeah, right," Mya snorted.
The few times Elizabeth had bothered to visit after leaving Mya's grandparents to raise her, she spent the entire time talking about the glamorous life she was leading with whomever happened to be her boyfriend at the time. She'd tell Mya she needed to straighten her hair, learn to flirt, do whatever it took to attract a man so he could rescue her away from this godforsaken town, before she ended up like her Aunt Maureen. Mya would prefer to be like Maureen over Elizabeth any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Mya had made it out of Gauthier, but she'd done it on her own. She hadn't needed anyone to rescue her. And, unlike Elizabeth, she hadn't left a baby for others to raise.
Even though she'd come close.
Mya shook off the disturbing thought. She continued to sway, pulling in deep breaths as the swing rocked back, letting them out when she went forward. She'd love to spend the rest of the afternoon out here, but it was time to go into the house and face the judgmental stares. Every expression said the same thing: it took her grandfather dying to bring Mya Dubois back to Gauthier.
Just as she reached out to grab the rail post, the swing stopped and Corey Anderson plopped down next to her. She hadn't even heard him approach.
She had managed to avoid him since their meet and greet in the cemetery. It was a trend Mya wanted to continue.
"Believe it or not, I was just leaving," she said, rising from the swing.
"You don't want to go in there," he warned her.
She glanced at him and raised her brows in question.
"Act two," Corey answered. "A solo performance by the great Elizabeth Dubois. Someone picked up one of your granddad's pipes, and she went into hysterics. Last I saw, three people were holding her up and one was fanning her."
Mya clenched her fists at her sides and opened her mouth in a silent scream toward the sky. She resumed her seat on the swing, bringing one leg up again and resting her chin against her knee.
"You think I could get away with shaking her senseless just one time, or would I go to jail for assault?" she asked.
Corey shrugged as he looked out over the yard. "Kandice Lewis is the district attorney now. Doesn't she still owe you a favor for filling in on the cheerleading squad when she was too drunk to make the games?"
"Stop it." Mya laughed. "She suffered from some kind of stomach thing. I doubt Kandice has ever been drunk a day in her life."
"She was always one of the good girls."
"You said it," Corey returned with a chuckle. Mya caught him with an elbow to the arm. "Hey." He held up his hands. "I always liked the bad girls."
"Only fair, since you're the one who helped them earn their reputations in the first place."
Mya watched his profile as a slow smile drew across his face. She could only imagine what was going through that pretty little head of his.
She couldn't deny that he was still pretty, though Corey would throttle her for using that particular word to describe him. Mr. Macho Baseball Hero never considered himself pretty, but with that strong jaw and those signature light brown Anderson eyes, Corey was not just pretty, he was as gorgeous as ever.
Mya was touched that he'd returned for her granddad's funeral. Coming back to Gauthier was probably as hard for Corey as it had been for her. As far as Mya knew, he no longer had family here. According to her grandmother, the last of the Andersons, his eldest brother, Leon, had moved somewhere up north after their father died of a heart attack a few years ago. It was the same thing that had taken their mother during Corey's first year of high school. The two middle boys, the twins, Stefan and Shawn, had both left with the assistance of the legal system.
Baseball had saved Corey from a similar fate, but for most of his youth, he had been as bad as his twin brothers. Especially when it came to her. With her he had been deliciously bad. The kind of bad that made a girl's toes curl and her skin tingle. God, it had been a long time since she'd had that kind of bad in her life.
If only things had ended differently.
Mya put a choke hold on those thoughts and wrestled them back to the corner of her mind she wasn't allowed to visit unless she was drowning her sorrows in a glass of merlot. Today had been enough of an emotional brain suck; she didn't need the ghosts of her past mistakes adding to her inevitable breakdown.
"Gosh, I'm just ready for this day to be over." Mya pushed her fingers through the tight, springy ringlets that her naturally curly hair produced when dried by the sun.
"Been rough on you, huh?" Corey asked.
She hunched her shoulders. "I just thought he would be here longer, you know? He always used to say that dying wasn't an option."
"Sounds like something Big Harold would say." Corey chuckled. He pushed the swing with his foot, then stretched his right arm across the back.
Mya let the motion lull her back to that calm place she'd found before her mother had interrupted her peace. Her bare foot lightly grazed the porch's floorboards as it swayed back and forth. The paint had started to peel in spots, another indicator that Granddad had been suffering with cancer long before he let anyone know. There's no way he would have allowed any part of this house to go downhill if he'd been feeling well enough to fix it.
If she had been here, maybe she would have seen the pain in his eyes.
Guilt twisted in her gut, but Mya accepted the pain as penance. She looked out over the yard of the house where she'd spent the first seventeen years of her life.
Cars were parked haphazardly within the fenced-in portion, while others lined both sides of the street. Everyone had respected the side yard where Granddad's vegetable garden brimmed with plump tomatoes drooping from the vine, flowering heads of cabbage, peppers, okra and about a dozen other vegetables that had fed the people in this small town for years.
Before she returned to New York she would pick the vegetables that were ready. She couldn't stand the thought of the fruits of Granddad's hard work falling to the ground and dying.
Mya blew out a shaky breath, willing the tears to remain at bay.
"It was a nice service," Corey said after a stretch of surprisingly comfortable silence. Though it wasn't all that surprising. She and Corey had always been at ease with each other. That had been part of her downfall.
"Granddad deserved it," Mya said. "He's probably walking around heaven with his chest sticking out, bragging about all the people who showed up for his funeral."
"People around here loved Big Harold." Mya simply nodded. If she tried to speak, the tears would start flowing again. Too late.