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Duke Colton didn't know what made him look in that direction, but once he did, he couldn't look away. Even though he wanted to.
Moreover, he wanted to keep walking. To pretend that he hadn't seen her, especially not like that.
Susan Kelley's head was still down, her short, dark-blond hair almost acting like a curtain, and she seemed oblivious to the world around her as she sat on the bench to the side of the hospital entrance, tears sliding down her flawless cheeks.
Duke reasoned that it would have been very easy either to turn on his heel and walk in another direction, or just to pick up speed, look straight ahead and get the hell out of there before the Kelley girl looked up.
Especially since she seemed so withdrawn and lost to the world.
He'd be doing her a favor, Duke told himself, if he just ignored this pretty heart-wrenching display of sadness. Nobody liked looking this vulnerable. God knew that he wouldn't.
Not that he would actually cry in public—or private for that matter. When he came right down to it, Duke was fairly certain that he couldn't cry, period. No matter what the situation was.
Hell, he'd pretty much been the last word in stoic. But then, he thought, he'd had to be, seeing as how things hadn't exactly gone all that well in his life—or his family's life—up to this point.
Every instinct he had told Duke he should be moving fast, getting out of Susan's range of vision. Now. Yet it was as if his feet had been dipped in some kind of super-strong glue.
He couldn't make them move.
He was lingering. Why, he couldn't even begin to speculate. It wasn't as though he was one of those people who was bolstered by other people's displays of unhappiness. He'd never believed in that old adage about misery loving company. When he came right down to it, he'd never had much use for misery, his own or anybody else's. For the most part, he liked keeping a low profile and staying out of the way.
And he sure as hell had no idea what to do when confronted with a woman's tears—other than running for the hills, face averted and feigning ignorance of the occurrence. He'd never lay claim to being one of those guys who knew what to say in a regular situation, much less one where he was front-row center to a woman's tear-stained face.
But this was Susan.
Susan Kelley. He'd watched Susan grow up from an awkward little girl to an outgoing, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little charmer who somehow managed to be completely oblivious to the fact that she was as beautiful as all get out.
Susan was the one who cheered people up. She never cried. Not that he was much of an expert on what Susan did or didn't do. He just heard things. The way a man survived was to keep his eyes and his ears open, and his mouth shut.
Ever since his twin brother Damien was hauled off to jail because everyone in town believed he had killed Mark Walsh, Duke saw little to no reason to socialize with the people in Honey Creek. And Walsh was no angel. Most people had hated him. The truth of it was, if ever someone had deserved being killed, it was Walsh. Mark Walsh was nasty, bad-tempered and he cheated on his wife every opportunity he got. And Walsh and Damien had had words, hot words, over Walsh's daughter, Lucy.
Even so, Damien hadn't killed him.
Duke frowned as, for a moment, fifteen years melted away. He remembered watching the prison bars slam, separating him from Damien. He didn't know who had killed that evil-tempered waste of human flesh, but he would have bet his life that it wasn't Damien.
Now, like a magnet, his green eyes were riveted to Susan.
Damn it, what was she crying about?
He blew out an impatient breath. A woman who was that shaken up about something shouldn't be sitting by herself like that. Someone should be with her, saying something. He didn't know what, but something. Something comforting.
Duke looked around, hoping to ease his conscience— and not feel guilty about his desire to get away—by seeing someone approaching the sobbing little blonde.
There was no one.
She was sitting by herself, as alone as he'd ever seen anyone on this earth. As alone as he felt a great deal of the time.
Damn it, he didn't want to be in this position. Didn't want to have to go over.
What was the matter with him?
He didn't owe her anything. Why couldn't he just go? Go and put this scene of vulnerability behind him? He wasn't her keeper.
Or her friend.
Susan pressed her lips together to hold back another sob. She hadn't meant to break down like this. She'd managed to hold herself together all this time, through all the visits, all the dark days. Hold herself together even when she'd silently admitted, more than once, that one conclusion was inevitable. Miranda was going to die.
Die even though she was only twenty-five years old, just like her. Twenty-five, with all of life standing right before her to run through, the way a young child would run barefoot through a field of spring daisies, with enthusiasm and joy, tickled by the very act.
Instead, six months ago Miranda had heard those most dreadful of words, You have cancer, and they had turned out to be a death sentence rather than a battlefield she could somehow fight her way through.
Now that she'd started, Susan couldn't seem to stop crying. Sobs wracked her body.
She and Miranda were friends—best friends. It felt as if they'd been friends forever, but it only amounted to a tiny bit more than five years. Five years that had gone by in the blink of an eye.
God knows she'd tried very, very hard to be brave for Miranda. Though it got harder and harder, she'd put on a brave face every time she'd walked into Miranda's line of vision. A line of vision that grew progressively smaller and smaller in range until finally, it had been reduced to the confines of a hospital room.
The room where Miranda had died just a few minutes ago.
That was when the dam she'd been struggling to keep intact had burst.
Walking quickly, she'd made it out of Miranda's room and somehow, she'd even made it out of the hospital. But the trip from the outer doors to the parking lot where she'd left her car, that was something she just couldn't manage dry-eyed.
So instead of crossing the length of the parking lot, sobbing and drawing unwanted attention to herself, Susan had retreated to the bench off to the side of the entrance, an afterthought for people who just wanted to collect themselves before entering the tall building or rest before they attempted the drive home.
But she wasn't collecting herself, she was falling apart. Sobbing as if her heart was breaking.
Because it was.
It wasn't fair.
It wasn't fair to die so young, wasn't fair to have to endure the kind of pain Miranda had had just before she'd surrendered, giving up the valiant struggle once and for all.
Her chest hurt as the sobs continued to escape.
Susan knew that on some level, crying like this was selfish of her. After all, it wasn't as if she was alone. She had her family—large, sprawling, friendly and noisy, they were there for her. The youngest of six, she had four sisters and a brother, all of whom she loved dearly and got along with decently now that they were all grown.
The same could be said about her parents, although there were times when her mother's overly loud laments about dying before she ever saw one viable grandchild did get under her skin a little. Nonetheless, she was one of the lucky ones. She had people in her life, people to turn to.
So why did she feel so alone, so lonely? Was grief causing her to lose touch with reality? She knew that if she picked up the phone and called one of them, they'd be at her side as quickly as possible.
As would Linc.
She and Lincoln Hayes had grown up together. He'd been her friend for years. Longer than Miranda had actually been. But even so, having him here, having any of them here right now, at this moment, just wouldn't take away this awful feeling of overwhelming sorrow and loss.
She supposed she felt this way because she was not only mourning the loss of a dear, wonderful friend, mourning the loss of Miranda's life, she was also, at bottom, mourning the loss of her own childhood. Because Death had stolen away her own innocence. Death had ushered in an overwhelming darkness that had never been there before.
Nothing was every going to be the same again.
And Susan knew without being told that for a long time to come, she was going reach for the phone, beginning calls she wouldn't complete, driven by a desire to share things with someone she couldn't share anything with any longer.
God, she was going to miss Miranda. Miss sharing secrets and laughing and talking until the wee hours of the morning.
More tears came. She felt drained and still they came.
Susan lost track of time.
She had no idea how long she'd been sitting on that bench, sobbing like that. All she knew was that she felt almost completely dehydrated. Like a sponge that had been wrung out.
She should get up and go home before everyone began to wonder what had happened to her. She had a wedding to cater tomorrow. Or maybe it was a birthday party. She couldn't remember. But there was work to do, menus to arrange.
And God knew she didn't want to worry her parents. She'd told them that she was only leaving for an hour or so. Since she worked at the family restaurant and still lived at home, or at least, in the guesthouse on the estate, her parents kept closer track of her than they might have had she been out somewhere on her own.
Everything was her fault, Susan thought, upbraiding herself.
If she'd insisted that Miranda go see the doctor when her friend had started feeling sick and began complaining of bouts of nausea coupled with pain, maybe Miranda would still be alive today instead of…
Susan exhaled a shaky breath.
What was the point? Going over the terrain again wouldn't change anything. It wouldn't bring Miranda back. Miranda was gone and life had suddenly taken on a more temporary, fragile bearing. There was no more "forever" on the horizon. Infinity had become finite.
Susan glanced up abruptly, feeling as if she was being watched. When she raised her eyes, she was more than slightly prepared to see Linc looking back at her. It wouldn't be that unusual for him to come looking for her if he thought she wasn't where she was supposed to be. He'd appointed himself her keeper and while she really did value his friendship, there was a part of her that was beginning to feel smothered by his continuous closeness.
But when she looked up, it wasn't Linc's eyes looking back at her. Nor were they eyes belonging to some passing stranger whose attention had been momentarily captured by the sight of a woman sobbing her heart out.
The eyes she was looking up into were green.
Intensely green, even with all that distance between them. Green eyes she couldn't fathom, Susan thought. The expression on the man's face, however, was not a mystery. It was frowning. In disapproval for her semi-public display of grief?
Or was it just in judgment of her?
Duke was wearing something a little more intense than his usual frown. Try as she might, Susan couldn't recall the brooding rancher with the aura of raw sexuality about him ever really smiling. It was actually hard even to summon a memory of the man that contained a neutral expression on his face.
It seemed to her that Duke always appeared to be annoyed. More than annoyed, a good deal of the time he looked angry. Not that she could really blame him. He was angry at his twin for having done what he'd done and bringing dishonor to the family name.
Or, at least that was what she assumed his scowl and anger were all about.
Embarrassed at being observed, Susan quickly wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. She had no tissues or handkerchief with her, although she knew she should have had the presence of mind to bring one or the other with her, given the situation she knew she might be facing.
Maybe she hadn't because she'd secretly hoped that if she didn't bring either a handkerchief or tissues, there wouldn't be anything to cry about.
For a moment, she was almost positive that Duke was going to turn and walk away, his look of what was now beginning to resemble abject disgust remaining on his face.
But then, instead of walking away, he began walking toward her.
Her stomach fluttered ever so slightly. Susan straightened her shoulders and sat up a little more rigidly. For some unknown reason, she could feel her mouth going dry.
Probably because you're completely dehydrated. How much water do you think you've got left in you?
She would have risen to her feet and started to walk away if she could have, but her legs felt oddly weak and disjointed, as if they didn't quite belong to her. Susan was actually afraid that if she tried to stand up, her knees would give way beneath her and she would collapse back onto the bench. Then Duke would really look contemptuously at her, and she didn't think she was up to that.
Not that it should matter to her what Duke Colton thought, or didn't think, of her, she silently told herself in the next breath. She just didn't want to look like a complete idiot, that was all. Her nose was probably already red and her eyes had to be exceedingly puffy by now.
Crossing to her, still not uttering a single word in acknowledgment of her present state or even so much as a greeting, Duke abruptly shoved his hand into his pocket, extracted something and held it out to her.
Susan blinked. Duke was holding out a surprisingly neatly folded white handkerchief.
When she made no move to take it from him, he all but growled, "Here, you seem to need this a lot more than I do."
Embarrassment colored her cheeks, making her complexion entirely pink at this point. "No, that's all right," she sniffed, again vainly trying to brush away what amounted to a sheet's worth of tears with the back of her hand.