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"Mr. Braeburn? Are you still there?"
"Yes, yes " Grant released a long, strained breath, pressing his fingers into his eyelids. "I'm here." He blinked at the rain-drenched vista on the other side of his home office window, watching distractedly as sixty-foot pines cowered and shuddered under the leaden sky's relentless onslaught.
"How" He carefully cleared his throat. "How did you know to call me?"
"Mrs. Braeburn had emergency contact information in her purse. And the glove compartment." The doctormiddle-aged, still not comfortable with making these sorts of calls, Grant guessed paused. "And her briefcase."
A humorless chuckle released the vise constricting Grant's lungs. Catching himself, he sank into a leather club chair facing the window. "I'm sorry"
"Shock often produces seemingly inappropriate emotions," the doctor said kindly. "It's a coping mechanism. So the pain doesn't overwhelm us."
"It's not " Outside, rivers slammed against the paned windows. Grant shook his head to clear it.
"Justine and I were divorced more than a year ago."
"Ah. Yes. Of course." A pause. "I understand you have a daughter?"
Grant shut his eyes, willing his brain to assimilate anything. "Yes. She's here. It's my weekend."
"Then you'll tell her?"
"Of course," Grant said, even as he thought, How the hell do you tell a three-year-old her mother's dead? He sucked in an acid-tinged breath, then asked, "Justine she was alone? In the car?"
Another pause, then a measured, "She apparently took a curve too quickly, hit a patch of wet leaves and lost control. She may have been on her cell phone."
Typical, he thought bitterly. Justine would practically have a panic attack if she lost contact with the outside world for more than five minutes. With each breath, Grant's lungs eased. Slightly. "I suppose I'll need to make arrangements?"
"There's no other family, then?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Mr. Braeburn, I could give you some names if you, or the little girl, would like to talk to someone?"
"Thank you. But I have my own contacts. Should the need arise."
"Of course. If there's nothing else ?"
"No. No, wait "
A second's wrestling preceded, "Her face?" The doctor hesitated, then said, "She'd been a beautiful woman, I take it?"
For some time after the call, Grant stood staring into the late day dreariness outside, the phone still clamped in his chilled hand. An odd, tight smile pulled at his mouth. He could just imagine Justine's soulif she had onefloating over her lifeless body, wailing over losing her looks. Especially considering the megabucks she'd invested in them
"Mr. B.? Everything all right?"
Grant turned; his housekeeper's puglike face was more deeply creased than usual, worry peering out from light brown eyes framed in drooping crow's feet. Etta Bruschetti didn't exactly fit the mold of who one generally found keeping lives and houses intact in this part of the world. But the smart-mouthed brunette kept him honest, on his toes and from believing his own press. It also didn't hurt that she cooked as though she'd been personally instructed by God.
He returned his gaze outside and said quietly, "Haley's mother was killed in a car crash a few hours ago."
"What? Ohmigod, you're not serious!" Etta pressed a broad hand to her generous chest. "God, that's awful. That poor woman!"
One side of Grant's mouth twitched. "Oh, come on, Etta I know how you felt about Justine."
"Okay, so maybe I wasn't exactly all broken up when the two of you split. But I wouldn't wish somethin' like that on anybody, you know what I mean?"
Even though the question was rhetorical, Grant nodded anyway. Etta stuffed her hands in the pockets of the white utilitarian apron she wore over her sweatshirt and jeans, the closest she came to a uniform unless Grant entertained. Which he hadn't since the divorce. "Guess that means the baby's gonna be living here full-time now, huh?"
His thought processes hadn't gotten that far. But of course, he realized with a slug to his midsectionJustine's death made him a single father.
One who had thus far bungled this fatherhood thing like nobody's business.
"Yeah," he finally said on a stream of air. "It does." A few minutes later, he climbed the stairs to his daughter's bedroom, where Haley would spend hours at a time playing with her extensive stuffed toy and doll collection. At first, Grant had assumed Haley simply hadn't inherited her mother's sociability gene. Eventually, however, he'd realized the child simply preferred the company of her "friends" to him.
His heart racing, he stood outside his daughter's partially open door, steeling himself as he listened to her nonstop chatter. Just like her mother, who'd never been at a loss for words, either. A good trait in a lawyer, Grant supposed. Swallowing sawdust, he knocked softly, then pushed the door open.
Instantly, the chatter stopped. A goofy-looking stuffed lionJustine's last present to her, Grant realized with a punch to his gutclutched in her arms, Haley glanced up at his entrance, her expression a disturbing blend of caution and indifference. Selfishlyand guiltilyGrant had often wondered if perhaps a more outgoing child would have helped him overcome his own ineptitude, would have shattered by now whatever had kept him from feeling what other fathers felt for their children.
At least, some fathers.
Still, he wasn't immune to his daughter's almost painful beauty, with her dark blond curls and enormous, thick-lashed brown eyes, her fair skin with its perpetual faint blush. She also seemed frighteningly bright for a child who wouldn't be four for another several weeks. But then, what did he know? "Did Mommy call?" she asked with her customary directness, and his insides twisted. Without fail, Justine always called Haley during these weekend visits, even when she was away herself. Whatever had happened between him and his ex-wife, Justine had been completely devoted to their daughter.
In fact, his ex-wife had been completely besotted by Haley from the moment the doctor had laid the messy, squalling child in Justine's arms while Grant had only been bewildered. By the baby, by the unexpectedin this casemother-daughter bond, by the cozy, exclusive world the two of them had with each other from day one. A world to which Grant had never been able to figure out the secret password that would have gained him entrance.
Flexing his hands at his hips, Grant crossed the hooked rug covered with dozens of multicolored pastel butterflies, eternally in flight in a pale blue sky, to sit heavily on a faux-painted toy chest. Too astute by far, Haley watched him, her gaze steady. Judgmental.
Grant stared at his folded hands for a long moment, realizing he had no idea what the hell he was doing. What he was supposed to do. This was the kid who used to scream bloody murder if she lost sight of her mother for more than a few secondshow on earth would she react to this?
The word was flat, perfunctory. She might as well have been calling him a plate or a chair or a tree. She kept her distance, hugging that lion, eyeing him suspiciously. "Are you mad?"
"No," Grant said, surprised she would read his hesitation as anger. "But I have something to tell you. Something sad.And I'm not sure how to go about it."
She waited, frowning, not so much trusting as curious, he thought. He took a deep breath and plunged.
"Mommy was in an accident," he said quietly, his heart punching his rib cage. "In her car. And she got hurt very badly. So badly, the doctors couldn't fix her. And and she died."
Haley stilled, her gaze fixed on his. Then she lowered her eyes to the lion and started stroking his mane, curling her small fingers through the golden fluff. From underneath her lashes, she peered at him again. "Died? Like Grandpa?"
She'd still been a baby when Grant's father had died, much too young for Patrick Braeburn's death to have made an impact. And Justine's parents had both been gone long before she and Grant married. With a pang, Grant realized death was just a word to the little girl, a word without any real relevance or meaning.
"Yeah. Like Grandpa."
Another moment or two passed before she said, "Mommy says the doctor always makes you better."
"They tried their hardest, they really did"
"So Mommy's coming back. She always comes back. Always."
"Not this time," Grant said over the nausea.
Hugging the lion more tightly, Haley kept her eyes locked in his for several seconds before returning to the other side of the room, where she squatted in front of her dollhouse and began one-handedly rearranging things, as if she'd somehow sucked the news inside her. Almost light-headed with uncertainty, he wondered if he should hold her. Ask her if she was okay. Something.
"Haley? Do you want to talk?"
She swept one hand through her curls in a gesture that was her mother to a T. "No, thank you. I'll talk to Mommy when she comes."
Oh, God. "Haley, Mommy's not coming back" But she was shaking her head, the curls a blur as her movements became more and more agitated. "No, she's coming back, an' we're going to the toy store when we get home, she promised." Her eyes veered to Grant's, dry but determined. "She promised."
Grant reached for her, but she lurched backward, stumbling over a stuffed beagle lying sideways on the lacquered, honey-blond floor to land on her bottom. "No!" she bellowed, frantically scrambling away, crab-style, to plaster herself against the wall underneath one window, between a pair of white bookcases crammed with books and games and puzzles. "I don't want you! I want Mommy!"
Despite the wet-clay feeling of helplessness swamping him, Grant crouched in front of his daughter, who shoved the heels of her sneakers into the floor, pressing further into the wall. "It's okay," he said as she started to whimper, "I'm going to take care of you now"
"No!" she shrieked, launching the stuffed lion at his chest. "I wanna go home! I want to talk to Mommy now!"