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Of all the ways she could have chosen to spend a Thursday morning, attending a stranger's memorial service wasn't at the top of Kelli Jackson's list.
Especially when that stranger was her own mother.
Kelli faced the front of the open-air amphitheater clasping a completely dry tissue in her lap and trying to ignore the curious glances being cast her way. Apparently, everybody wanted to get a glimpse of the outsider who claimed to be Lillian Mitchell's daughter. As people filed toward their seats among the rows of semicircular wooden benches in the moments before the service began, more than one puzzled whisper reached her ears.
"I never knew Lillian had any family. Did you?"
"Can't say as I did. Looks like her, though. Wonder why Lil never talked about her."
Kelli kept her face schooled in the detached, professional mask she wore when preparing a tax return for a new client. Wouldn't do to show dismay at the humiliating affirmation that her mother hadn't even cared enough to mention to those she worked with that she'd given birth to a daughter twenty-six years before. As person after person stepped up to the podium on the center of the stage to recall incidents from Lillian's life, Kelli's gaze kept stealing to the table where the polished wooden box holding her mother's ashes rested, a single vase of flowers beside it.
The deep roar of a lion exploded in the distance, and a wave of gooseflesh rose along Kelli's bare arms as the primeval cry reverberated in the air around her. The sound echoed across the years from childhood nightmares she'd thought safely forgotten long ago.
What am I doing here, Lord? This is no place for me.
The man standing behind the podium paused in his tribute and raised his head to listen until the roar died away. His smile swept the crowded amphitheater.
"Apparently Samson would like to speak a few words on Lillian's behalf. He always was an attention hog."
The crowd's chuckle held an indulgent tone. Obviously Samson was a favorite among the mourners. Kelli shifted on the rough wooden bench.
"Actually, it's fitting that Samson be included in this service to honor Lillian. She dedicated her life to making sure that he and the rest of the animals here at Cougar Bay Zoological Park receive nothing but excellent care and the highest quality of life."
Of course she did. Kelli's lips tightened, despite her efforts to keep her expression impassive. She cared more for those zoo animals than she did her own child.
Which was one reason she wanted to get this ordeal over with as quickly as possible and get out of here. Back home in Denver, life could return to normal. She could go to work and lose herself in the comfort of her clients' finances. All the questions she encountered there were easy ones, with concrete answers, like, "Can I deduct the clown I hired for my daughter's birthday since I invited my boss to the party?" ("Uh, no, Mr. Farmer, I'm sorry but that's not a legitimate deduction.")
"The first time I laid eyes on Lil, she was cleaning out the chimp house." The man eulogizing Lillian—Kelli couldn't think of her as Mom—smiled, and from her vantage point on the first row Kelli recognized genuine affection in his face. Tall and fit, with sun-kissed brown hair curling around the collar of the tan shirt with the zoo's logo over the breast pocket. Nice looking, probably only a few years older than Kelli. What was he to Lillian? An employee, no doubt, since Lillian ran everything here at the zoo.
"I shouted through the bars that I was there to interview for the keeper position. She let me in, handed me a hose, and told me to show her my stuff." An appealing grin twisted his lips. "I must have looked hesitant, because she barked, 'You're not afraid of a little poop, are you?'"
Everyone around Kelli laughed. She couldn't hold back a smile herself. Judging from the voice she'd heard over the phone during their stilted, twice-yearly conversations, the guy had Lillian's gravelly, no-nonsense bark down pat. He must have known her pretty well, then. Kelli cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the sparsely filled benches. No doubt these people knew Lillian better than her own daughter did. How sad was that?
"I didn't bother to point out that she was wearing rubber boots, while I was in a suit and had just polished my shoes. Knowing Lil as I do now, she wouldn't have cared. It's a good thing I took the hose and got to work." His head dropped forward, and when he continued, his voice sounded choked. "Landing this job six years ago was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the chance to work with someone whose devotion to animals went far beyond anyone I'd ever met, or likely will again. Lil changed my outlook on my job, and on my life. I'll never forget her."
A hushed murmur of agreement rose from the mourners as he left the stage to return to his seat on the front row, a few feet away from Kelli. She watched him covertly as the minister stepped up to the podium for his final remarks. The guy sat with his head drooping forward, hands dangling between his knees. When he brushed tears from his eyes, Kelli experienced a twinge of self-reproach.
What's wrong with me, God? My mother is dead. Why can't I grieve, like this guy?
But Kelli's soul felt leaden, numb, as the minister led them in a closing prayer. How could she grieve the loss of her mother today, when the real loss had taken place years before?
Twin tears pooled in the corners of his eyes. Jason brushed them away. Becoming emotional today surprised him. He'd already cried for Lil in the privacy of his apartment. In fact, he'd shed almost as many tears for her as he had when Dad died a few months ago. Lil would have been the first to tell him to pull himself together and get over it. He could almost hear her lecturing inside his head.
"Enough, already! There's work to do. Get over there and check that fence around the wolves' yard. If Bob gets out again we'll have AZA inspectors crawling all over the place."
A smile tugged at his mouth. Lil probably would have hated the idea of this memorial service, anyway. She wasn't one to tolerate emotional displays, said they wasted energy that should be spent accomplishing something.
Was her daughter anything like her?
Jason stole a sideways glance at the young woman whose face, though pale, bore a strong resemblance to her mother's. Same chiseled nose, same wide-set, round eyes. Although now that he took a closer look, he realized the daughter was far prettier than her mother. She was more delicate, her lips fuller and softer.
And shiny with lip gloss. He'd never seen Lil wear makeup once in all the years he'd known her. Plus, this girl's thick, dark curls hung in waves down her back, while Lil had always hacked off her straight, steel-gray hair at the chin line. So maybe their features weren't so much alike after all, even though the daughter's aloof expression was a duplicate of her mother's.
Kelli. Lil told him her name was Kelli.
Did she have any idea of the blow she was about to suffer?
As though she sensed his thoughts, Kelli's head turned and she glanced his way. For the briefest of moments, clear gray eyes looked into his, and air froze in his lungs. Guilt stabbed him in the gut. He straightened quickly and focused his attention on the minister behind the podium.
Why me, Lil? I don't know if I can do it. Even for you.
"I don't know what the house is like yet, Nana. I came straight to the zoo from the airport for the service."
Kelli spoke quietly into her cell phone as the mourners, most of them zoo employees judging by their clothing, filed past. She stood on a concrete path just beyond the amphitheater exit. The patchy shade from a stand of tall, skimpy trees provided scant relief from the hot Florida sun. She avoided looking anyone in the eye. No doubt she was being rude, but she didn't think she could handle their curious gazes as they mumbled platitudes about her mother.
"How was it?" Nana's voice wavered with age. "Were there a lot of people?"
"Around thirty. Everyone said nice things about her, told funny stories and all that."
"That would have been nice to hear." Nana paused. "Are you okay, sweetie?"
A drop of sweat slid between her shoulder blades. Kelli held the phone with one hand and mopped at her damp forehead with the tissue. "I'm okay. It's really humid here, though. And hot. It's only ten o'clock in the morning and it must be ninety degrees already."
Kelli folded the tissue and scrubbed the back of her neck beneath her heavy mane of hair as the stream of people leaving the service slowed to a trickle. She spotted the last two men hovering just inside the shoulder-high hedge that surrounded the amphitheater, both of them looking her way. One was Lillian's attorney, who'd met Kelli at the zoo entrance and brought her inside for the service. The other was the guy who'd spoken last and sat near her. They were obviously waiting for her to finish her conversation.
"Nana, I have to go. I need to talk to the lawyer."
"All right. Call me tonight."
"I will. Love you."
"Love you, too, sweetie."
Kelli disconnected the call and slipped the phone into her purse. When she did, the men stepped through the exit and headed toward her. Mr. Lewis carried the vase of flowers in one hand and his briefcase in the other, and the younger man held—
Her breath caught at the sight of the polished wooden box in his hands.
The serious-faced attorney stepped into the small patch of shade. "Miss Jackson, allow me to introduce Jason Andover, an employee of your mother's."
Jason shifted the box to the crook of his left arm and extended his right. "Miss Jackson."
"Please call me Kelli." His hand felt cool and dry next to her damp palm. Now that she could see him face-to-face, she felt a little flustered. He was quite handsome, with a golden tan and green-brown eyes that seemed to pierce straight into hers.
"Kelli." He drew out her name, making the most of both syllables in a faint southern drawl that sent a tickle through her insides. "I'm sorry for your loss. Lil was a good boss, a good woman. She meant a lot to all of us here at the zoo. She was almost like a mother to me."
The words hit her like a slap. Almost like a mother? How nice for them both. Kelli tried to hold her bitterness at bay, but when his eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, she realized her lips were pressed tightly together.
"Thank you," she managed as she extracted her hand from his grip. "And thank you for your kind words during the service. I'm sure my—mother would have appreciated them." She turned to Mr. Lewis. "I'd like to get started going through her house. Do you have the key?"
To her surprise, Jason answered. "It's in the office. Follow me." He turned abruptly and strode away, not bothering to check to see if she followed.
Odd. What was he upset about? She was the one whose mother apparently mothered everyone but her own daughter. She raised her eyebrows in a silent question to the attorney, but he merely nodded for her to follow Jason's retreating back. With a sigh, Kelli hitched her purse strap higher on her shoulder and trailed after him down the sidewalk beside a high hedge with lush pink blossoms.
Mr. Lewis fell into step beside her. "There are a couple of things we need to go over."
"You mean her will?"
He nodded and lifted his briefcase slightly. "I have everything with me. Do you feel up to talking now, before you go to the house?"
Kelli looked sideways at him, discomfort tickling in the pit of her stomach when he didn't meet her eye. Had Lillian left a pile of debt for her daughter to settle? A financial tangle that would take months to unravel? Well, hopefully the house would sell quickly, and at a price high enough to take care of the balance of the mortgage with enough left over to resolve the rest. There would probably be some large medical bills. Kelli's stomach churned with an unnamed emotion. Did her mother even have medical insurance?
What kind of daughter doesn't know things like that?
They passed a large, dome-shaped cage full of medium-size brown monkeys with long tails. One let out a loud screech that made her jump. As the sound continued and gained in volume, she clapped hands to her ears. "What in the world?"
Ahead on the path, Jason glanced backward. "Howler," he said over his shoulder.
"No kidding." Kelli eyed the bearded primate, whose head turned as she passed, liquid brown eyes fixed on her face. The creature watched her with human-like intensity, but the smell emanating from the exhibit—or maybe from the howlers themselves—was pure animal, and seemed to be magnified by the heat. She wrinkled her nose and breathed through her mouth until they were downwind.
The path wound through a smaller set of cages containing a variety of large, colorful birds. A macaw combed its wing with a hooked beak as they passed, and Kelli admired the way the sun turned the feathers fiery red. Now, birds like these she could handle. Just as long as she stayed away from the lions.
She suppressed a shudder.
Finally, they arrived at the office, a smallish one-story building tucked behind the ticket booth where they'd stashed her luggage when she arrived by taxi from the airport. Jason politely held open the door as she entered.
Kelli blinked in the cool interior to clear her sun-dazzled eyes. Four office desks were crowded into this room, three of them occupied. As Jason led them toward a door in the back wall, one of the girls, a blonde who Kelli vaguely recognized from the memorial service, stood and stepped in front of her.
"Hi, I'm Angela. I just want to tell you how sorry we all are."
Kelli shook her hand. "Thank you."
"If there's anything we can do," the girl's gesture included the others in the room, "don't hesitate to ask."
What that would be, Kelli couldn't imagine, but she nodded. "I appreciate that."