Nikki stood at the grave of her ex-husband and thought, This is the last way I expected to get custody
Beside her was her fourteen-year-old daughter, April, quietly weeping. On Nikki's other side, eleven-year-old Jared stared straight ahead, stoic. Nikki could sense her father, Buck, towering behind them. He would be scowling, she knew. Buck had hated Drake Cameron and probably considered his death just one more thing Drake had screwed up. Next to April stood Nikki's mother, and Buck's ex-wife, Opal, seriously soaking a hanky. Tucked into the crook of her arm was her fluffy white poodle, Precious, who was not. Opal had liked Drake very much; she probably thought marrying him had been one of the few things Nikki had done right. Opal was one to appreciate money and pedigree, both of which she believed Drake had.
Only forty-seven, Drake had appeared to be at the peak of health. Nikki couldn't remember when he'd last had a head cold. Yet April had come home from school and found him facedown on the floor in his bathrobe, apparently dead since morning. The medical examiner's preliminary finding was massive coronary.
About fifty mourners gathered at the cemetery in the quickly rising heat of a late May morning in Phoenix. Most were lawyers and secretaries from the firm that had employed Drake, a tax law specialist. The only one of them Nikki knew was his secretary, Mona, who had been with him for at least ten years, long before the divorce. Nikki had to tangle with her every time she tried to make arrangements with Drake regarding the kids. A most unpleasant woman.
A couple of teachers from April's school had also come, as well as Jared's principal and one of the soccer coaches. A small knot of teenagers - April's friends - stood slightly off to one side, trying not to get too close to the adults.
It was not a big crowd. Like Nikki, Drake was an only child. His parents were deceased, and his rigid, domineering nature meant he didn't have a lot of friends. It was hard to cozy up to someone who insisted on control at any price. And then there was that business about grudges. Drake's anger had great stamina; he could stay mad forever.
Somewhere in the gathering were Nikki's two closest friends, Dixie McPherson and Carlisle Bartlett. Both were flight attendants at Aries Airlines, where Nikki was a pilot. They had worked together for the past ten years, starting when the company was still fairly new and small, and over the years there had been many times they'd have been lost without one another. Like now. Although Dixie and Carlisle were both involved in serious relationships, Nikki had been on her own since the divorce. Oddly, as she looked down at the black earth that would cover her dead ex-husband, an arm around each of her children, she felt less alone now.
The mourners filed past Nikki and the kids. "So sorry," they murmured. "He'll be missed." Or, "Hang in there, kids. Try to remember the good times you had with your dad." April excused herself and went to join her friends, who immediately embraced her. Jared's friends were probably considered too young by their parents to attend.
Nikki shook hands and thanked each person, but Opal accepted condolences as though Drake were her son, inviting everyone back to Drake's house for refreshments. Dixie and Carlisle waited till the last person had left, and April bid her friends goodbye and returned to Nikki's side.
"How're you holding up?" Dixie asked, while Carlisle simply filled his arms with April and Jared.
"She's doing very well, aren't you, Nicole?" Opal replied for her. Precious snarled.
"I'm doing okay. Are you coming over to the house?"
Before Dixie could answer, April pulled herself free of Carlisle's arms and, tears in her voice, asked, "Do we have to just keep doing this? Over and over and over?"
Nikki couldn't imagine her pain. The kids had a hard time with their dad, but they had loved him. The hell of it was, she thought as she looked at Opal, you loved your parents even when you hated them. As for Jared, he just stared out at nothing, his detachment as troubling as April's tears.
"Oh, April," Opal said. "People are going to be there, sweet. It's the proper thing to do. Say a few kind words about the departed ... offer sympathy ... And your friends will be there."
"No, they won't, Grandma. I told them not to come."
"But we invited -"
"So? Do we have to?"
"It's your house, April," Nikki interjected. "I think Grandma's just trying to do the right thing...."
"What a pain," Jared muttered, giving the ground a kick.
"We don't want to seem rude," Opal said.
Buck grunted and turned away, heading for his car.
This whole reception thing her mother had planned was not for Opal, Nikki realized, and certainly not for herself. It was for April and Jared. And if they didn't want to do this ...
"Um, guys," she said to Dixie and Carlisle, "can you take my mother to the house? We're going to beg off. I'll see you later."
"Thatta girl," Carlisle cheered.
"Nicole! You can't do that!"
"Of course I can, Mother. We'll be along later. Come on, kids. I have an idea."
With an arm around each, she walked them right past the funeral parlor's limo to her car.
Excerpted from Blue Skies by Robyn Carr Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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