Read an Excerpt
Three Years Later
Becca Smith squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the dizziness to pass. And hoped this horrible day was nearly over.
"Are you okay?"
She opened her eyes to see Rick Jensen's concerned gaze. During the funeral, the presence of her husband's best friend and business partner had had a calming effect on her.
But now, Becca longed to scream and keep on screaming, until everyone quit tiptoeing around the fact that Gabe was dead and her life would never be "okay" again. Then she was sure the muted conversations around her would end and her friends and family would scuttle back to their unscathed lives. Their new year would soon return to normal.
The urge to throw casserole dishes and rented glass-ware against the wall was almost overwhelming, as if the shards raining down on the tile floor could convey how brittle and broken she felt.
But Becca held it together long enough to nod. Somehow, she would make it through the wake.
"Have you eaten today?"
"II think so." It was a lie. But she knew Rick would never understand that her throat constricted every time she took a bite.
He touched her arm. "How about if I fix you a plate? You look like you're ready to drop."
"That would be nice." She understood his need to make things better for her, knew that her grief reminded him of his own lossthe two men had been as close as brothers. And she wished with her whole heart that food was the answer. But it wasn't.
When Rick handed her a heaping plate a couple of minutes later, Becca fought a wave of nausea. But she obediently pushed the food around with her fork.
"You've got to eat something. For them." Rick nodded toward her three children: sixteen-year-old Maya, ten-year-old Aaron and their brother, David, now twenty. The three stood huddled together on one side of the living room.
It was as if they realized how vulnerable they were without their strong father standing between them and the world. Or maybe they suspected their normally patient mother was one scream away from losing it in front of all these well-meaning people.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"How much longer for what?"
"Until they leave." Until she could be alone with her grief and not pretend to be in control. Until she could surrender to the hopelessness threatening to incapacitate her.
"Pretty soon. Why don't you go upstairs and lie down. I can let Gabe's folks know. And I'm sure Royce and Katy wouldn't mind taking over host duties."
"No, I need to do it. For Gabe."
Emotion flashed in his eyes, then was gone. "Okay."
Becca was barely aware when he moved away from her. Or when he spoke quietly to her brother, Royce, and they worked the room in tandem.
All she knew was that people streamed over to say a quick goodbye at precise intervals.
Becca hoped she would remember to thank Rick for his kindness. But the task of staying focused on her hostess duties was almost more than she could handle.
When the last guest left, she closed the door, leaning her forehead against it.
Then was pulled into a strong embrace.
But it wasn't his scent. It was her brother's.
Becca stiffened, wondering how she could have confused a brotherly embrace with that of her soul mate. Then she forgave herself for the silly slip, stepping into his arms and hiding as if she were a girl of five again.
"I'm so sorry. I should have seen you weren't holding up as well as you wanted us to believe," Royce said.
"No, you're not." He drew back and held her gaze. Touching her cheek, he asked, "Have you cried?"
"No. I can't. My husband is dead and I can't seem to cry. I'm just so darn angry."
"Maybe you could use some time alone. Katy and I are going to take Dad and Evelyn to the airport in a few minutes. How about if David, Maya and Aaron come with us to see them off? Then on our way home, we'll take the kids to the moviesgive everyone a little reprieve."
"I don't suppose Jim and Irene would want to go?" Becca felt guilty even as she asked the question, putting her need to be alone above her in-laws' grief.
"We asked Gabe's folks to come, but they said they want some quiet time alone at the cemetery to say goodbye to Gabe."
"Thank you." She hoped those two words adequately expressed her gratitude for what amounted to a lifeline.
Her feelings must have shown, because Royce said, "That way you can have some alone time yourself and let go. Quit being brave."
"I'm not brave. I'm sad and confused and so totally p.o.'d, I can barely see straight."
Her sister-in-law, Katy, approached. "Everyone's on board for the airport, then the movies." She turned to Becca and gave her a quick hug. "We'll clean up when we get home. You don't do a thing, except maybe take a long, hot bath and crawl into bed."
"Thank you." If the circumstances had been different, Becca would have loved to join them. But as it was, she was just too damn grateful for a few moments of solitude.
Rick came up beside her and touched her arm. "You need anything, anything, call me."
She hugged her kids, her in-laws and her parents and finally they all left.
For possibly the first time in twenty-three years, Becca was totally alone.
She started up the stairs to take a bath, but stopped halfway. She simply couldn't face the master bedroom and bath, where every corner, every cubic inch of air, reflected her life with Gabe. Her first love. Her only love.
Instead, she retraced her steps to the great room, automatically picking up plates and glassware. By rote, she cleared the room, twining her fingers through several glasses.
One was slick and she started to lose her grip as she walked into the kitchen.
Though she tried to save it, the glass fell to the tiled floor and shattered.
Just as Becca's life had slipped out of control and broken to bits.
Powerful emotions bubbled within her, emotions foreign yet somehow right. Red-hot rage. Rage at Gabe for promising her forever and staying only twenty-three years. And anger at a God who had taken him away.
The sound of glass shattering was the perfect accompaniment to her anger. She grabbed glass after rented glass and dashed it to the floor, glorying in the power of defiance.
Becca had always played by the rules. She'd been a loving wife, a good mother. She'd treated her in-laws with kindness. Worked hard, volunteered her time, attended church. She had done everything she was supposed to do and her family should have been protected from bad things.
But fate hadn't played by the rules. It had delivered a massive heart attack to an otherwise healthy husband and father.
RICK LEANED his forehead against the cold steering wheel, his breath condensing as he exhaled. He should go home, get out of the Smith driveway. But he couldn't seem to turn the key in the ignition. Because once he did, Gabe's life would be past tense. The funeral was over, the wake was over, and now life was supposed to go on as usual.
But life as usual was no longer possible. Because Gabe wouldn't be in the office to help build up their rental-car business, playing off Rick's strengths and weaknesses. There wouldn't be anybody to clap him on the shoulder after a hard day and suggest stopping for a beer. And there sure wouldn't be anyone close enough to know what he'd gone through during his divorce, except maybe Becca.
Rick suspected he would never be the same again. He couldn't just sail through life, taking for granted that he had decades of good health ahead of him. Not only had he suddenly lost his best friend, he'd also come face-to-face with his own mortality. And he didn't much like it. If a guy as vital as Gabe could be struck down by a heart attack, then it could happen to anyone.
He straightened, staring at the house as if to find answers. Maybe even hoping Gabe would come strolling out the door saying it was all a huge joke. Rick would give everything he had to make that happen. But he couldn't.
Glancing at the passenger seat, he eyed the files Becca had requested. He should leave them for another day, but she had been insistent. Becca was a hairdresser, but also worked for Reliable Car Rental as their part-time accounts-receivable clerk. She knew as well as he did that the business needed to keep the cash flowing.
But there was no way in hell he wanted to go back into that house today. No way he wanted to look into Becca's eyes and see blank despair. Her stoic refusal to grieve had touched him more than a flood of tears. She was hurting, no doubt about it. And seeing her so lost and alone threatened his own tentative composure.
Nodding, Rick started the engine, flicked on the heater and put the gearshift in Reverse.
But he couldn't seem to let his foot off the brake.
Becca needed him.
BECCA WAS BARELY aware of the tears streaming down her face. Or of the glass stinging her calves, leaving pinpricks of blood on her skin.
The only thing she knew was that something immobilized her right arm.
Trying to wrench away, she swung, ready to do battle with whoever stood between her and her mission.
Rick's hand tightened on her wrist. "No, Becca."
"Let me go." She watched in horror as the palm of her left hand connected with his cheek. Felt the sting of flesh meeting flesh. And knew she'd never forgive herself, even if Rick did. But something propelled her movements, something she didn't understand.
He grasped both wrists. "Calm down."
"I don't want to calm down."
Removing the tumbler from her hand, he set it on the counter.
Becca's fingers flexed as she glanced longingly at the glass. Destruction felt like the perfect response to destruction. And soothed her in a way nothing else had.
Nodding, she pretended to acquiesce, employing as much cunning as an alcoholic seeking a drink.
Rick pulled her into his arms, murmuring soothing words.
She allowed herself to relax for a moment. Rest her cheek against his gabardine jacket. He was a good friend and only meant to comfort. But he just didn't understand. He'd lost a friend, but she'd lost the center of her life.
Becca felt as if she was spinning out of control with nothing to anchor her. Except, perhaps, the sound of glass shattering on tile.
Reaching blindly, she patted the counter until she felt something smooth and cylindrical.
She struggled, fighting for her life. Or maybe fighting for Gabe's life. It was all such a confusing mess.
Rick reached for her wrist again.
Becca evaded his grasp, shoving him with her shoulder.
He lost his balance and started to fall backward, pulling her with him.
Grunting as he hit the floor, Rick cushioned her fall.
Becca tried to scramble to her feet, but he held her fast, his arm pinning her against him.
"No, Becca. No more."
She had lost the battle. Her ragged breathing slowed as the fight went out of her. Replaced by deep, wracking sobs. All her hurt and despair came pouring out.
Barely aware of Rick patting her back, murmuring soothing words, she lost herself in a rush of release at no longer having to pretend she could go on without Gabe.
Cradled by Rick, she curled into the fetal position and cried out her sorrow. Emotion rocked her body with the rhythm of her sobs.
Rick's chest heaved, as if her sorrow was too much for him. Or as if her loss of control had touched off an explosion of grief in him.
Glancing up at his face, Becca touched his wet cheeks. She shouldn't have been surprised. He loved Gabe nearly as much as she did.
And that knowledge calmed her, much to her surprise.
Still, Rick held her, murmuring encouragement.
After what seemed like hours, awareness seeped in. Primal awareness.
Movement, friction, two bodies in such proximity had mimicked a coupling so unlikely it was laughable. If she'd had an ounce of her sense of humor left.
Becca glanced up, holding Rick's startled gaze.
"I'm sorry, Bec. It's one of those automatic responses." He set her aside, his husky use of her nickname touching off memories of the many times Gabe had whispered the same in the dark.
If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend he was Gabe. Pretend it was her mate's body that responded to hers. And suddenly, she wanted one last opportunity to be with Gabe. To pretend he was still a part of her.
Becca rolled, covering Rick with her body and moving against him.
His voice held a strangled quality when he said, "This isn't right."
Holding his gaze, she said, "Nothing's been right for six days. I can't eat, I can't sleep. Before today, I couldn't cry except for when I broke the glasses. And you took that small comfort from me. You owe me."
Rick's shock mirrored her own. It was such an unBecca-like thing to say.
She didn't give him time to refuse. She captured his mouth with hers. His protest was smothered by her onslaught, the dance of her tongue inviting him, allowing him the illusion of choice. But already she was hot and wet and proclaiming what she needed. She moved her hips against him as she reached to unbutton his dress pants.
Emotions flooded her. Anger. Remorse. Need. The raw energy of being alive. And the power of being in control. Because Gabe's death had proven she had absolutely no control over the course of her life. Only this small moment in time.
Becca was determined to experience it all. She reveled in cupping her palm against the front of his pants, but the fabric was in the way. She needed to feel him, warm, pulsing, alive.
Closing her eyes, she unzipped his pants and encircled him with her hand.
She ignored the harsh sound of his indrawn breath and focused on the life beneath her fingertips.
"Bec, this isn't"
"Shh." She opened her eyes, holding his gaze.
"Please help me to forget this awful day."
He grasped her wrists. "Think about what you're asking."
"Don't you understand? I can't think. Because if I do, I'll have to admit that Gabe is never coming back." Becca angrily dashed away the moisture on her cheeks, leaning close and shifting so she straddled him. Her voice was low and hoarse when she said, "We don't think. We just feel. Anything but hopelessness. Help me, Rick?"