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By Brenda Harlen
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLaid to rest.
The words taunted Arden Doherty with the illusion of comfort, the suggestion of peace. There had been little peace in the lives of Denise and Brian Hemingway, even less in the way their lives had been taken from them. Abruptly. Tragically. Unnecessarily.
Arden turned away from the gathering. Her absence wouldn't be noticed by the small crowd of mourners who'd come to say goodbye. She wasn't family; she hadn't been a friend. There was no reason to stay any longer, nothing she could do now.
Still, she glanced back one more time, not sure why she felt compelled to take that final look. She knew she'd never forget the image of those two glossy wood coffins, side by side - one less than four feet in length - gleaming in the late-September sun.
Just as she'd never forget that she was responsible for them being there.
Arden walked briskly, as if she might outdistance her thoughts, her grief, her guilt. She paused outside the cemetery gates to put on her sunglasses. The dark lenses cut the bright glare of the afternoon sun and masked the tears that burned behind her eyes. She desperately tried to switch mental gears, to think of something, anything but the mother and son who would soon be buried.
She turned into Woodfield Park, her steps slowing as the top of the courthouse came into view: thick stone walls; gleaming, multifaceted windows; towering white pillars. More impressive to Arden than the architecture of the building was what went on inside. The law was a complicated piece of machinery that churned tirelessly, if not always successfully.
The building was a visible symbol of the unending fight for truth and justice. Arden had dedicated her life to that same fight, and her own office was just down the street, where she could look out her window and see the peaked roof of the courthouse. Sometimes that glimpse was all she needed to remember why she'd become a family law attorney: to fight for the women and children who couldn't fight for themselves.
Today, she wasn't feeling very inspired, and she wasn't ready to go back to the office. Not yet. She needed a few minutes by herself to grieve, to acknowledge the helplessness that now seemed so overwhelming. She found a vacant bench nestled in the shelter of towering oak trees and settled against the wooden slats, confident that she was hidden from the pedestrian traffic on the path by the massive stone fountain. Here, if not solace, she could at least have solitude.
She tilted her head to look up at the sky, staring at the cloudless expanse that, even through the shade of her sunglasses, was so gloriously blue it almost hurt her eyes. The trees had started to change color, flaunting shades of gold and russet and red. Birds chattered somewhere overhead, although it wouldn't be long before most of them headed south to escape the cold Pennsylvania winter.
It was a beautiful day. Or it would have been if she could have forgotten, for even half a minute, about the scene she'd walked away from in the cemetery. And the part she'd played in putting the mother and son there.
She felt a tear spill onto her cheek, swiped at it impatiently. She'd learned a long time ago that tears were futile, crying a sign of weakness. But right now she couldn't help feeling helpless, ineffectual.
She stiffened at the sound of the familiar voice. The last thing she wanted right now was company. Especially Shaun McIver's company. She ignored him, hoped he'd keep walking.
Of course, he didn't. Anyone else would have respected her need for privacy, but not Shaun. Arden had met him eight years earlier when her cousin had married Shaun's brother the first time. After a five-year separation Nikki and Colin had recently remarried, and Arden had danced with Shaun at the wedding.
It had been an obligatory dance between the maid of honor and best man, but it had opened the door to feelings Arden had buried long ago, introduced her to desires she preferred to ignore. Uncomfortable with the emotions he stirred inside her, Arden had resolved to stay away from him. But Shaun was a lawyer, too, which meant that she had occasion to cross paths with him both personally and professionally.
"Please, go away." Her tone wasn't as firm as she'd wanted, the words not quite steady.
He ignored her request and lowered himself onto the bench beside her. No doubt Shaun believed he had the right - maybe even an obligation - to intrude on her pain.
Arden braced for the questions, prepared to deflect any attempts at idle conversation. But he didn't say anything at all. He just slipped his arm across her shoulders and drew her close to the warm strength of his body.
The quiet compassion, the wordless understanding, unraveled her. She felt another tear slip out, track slowly down her cheek. Then another. Arden pulled off her sunglasses, brushed away the moisture with her fingertips. She drew in a deep breath, fought for control of her emotions. She tried to pull back, to pull herself together, but Shaun didn't release her.
"Just let it go," he said.
And she did. She wasn't strong enough to hold back the tears any longer, and they slid down her cheeks. Tears of regret, despair, guilt. Helpless to stop the flow, she turned her face into the soft fabric of his shirt and sobbed quietly.
Shaun rubbed his palm over her back, soothing her as a mother would soothe a child - as Denise Hemingway might have once soothed four-year-old Brian. Arden's tears flowed faster, and still Shaun continued to hold her. She didn't know how long he sat with her, how long she cried. Eventually her sobs subsided into hiccups, her tears dried. Still, her throat was raw, her eyes burned, her gut ached with the anguish and futility of loss.
She felt something soft pressed into her hand and focused her bleary eyes on it.
It almost made her smile. She didn't think anyone carried them anymore. She should have known that Shaun would. She pulled away from him and unfolded the pressed square of white linen to wipe her eyes, blow her nose.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.
Arden shook her head. "No."
Maybe he thought she owed him some kind of explanation after such an outburst, but she hadn't asked him to intrude on her grief. She wasn't used to leaning on anyone other than herself. That she'd needed someone, and that he'd been there for her, both surprised and irritated her. And she was just waiting for him to pry, to demand, so she'd have a reason to be annoyed.
But he didn't pry. He didn't demand. Instead he tipped her chin up and looked at her with genuine concern and compassion in the depths of his dark green eyes. "Are you going to be okay?"
She drew a deep breath. "I'm fine."
Shaun glanced at his watch, and she hoped he had somewhere else he needed to be. She didn't like to seem ungrateful, but she'd cried all the tears she had in her, and now she just wanted a few minutes to herself to gather her thoughts. Then she would head back to the office and bury herself in any one of a dozen cases that needed her immediate attention.
"Do you want to grab some dinner?" he asked.
Arden frowned. "With you?"
One side of his mouth curved in a wry smile, and she felt a jolt of something deep inside her. Something she didn't understand and wasn't prepared to acknowledge.
"Yes, with me," he said.
"I don't think so." She was baffled by the invitation and wondered if all that crying had somehow short-circuited her brain.
"Why not?" he asked in the same casual tone.
Her frown deepened. Why was he pursuing this? She couldn't ever remember him seeking out her company. "Because I have to get back to the office."
"You're not going to get any work done tonight."
"Despite the outburst," she said, irritated by his confident assertion, "I didn't have a complete mental breakdown."
"You need to get your mind off what's bothering you."
"And having dinner with you is going to do that?" she asked skeptically.
Excerpted from McIver's Mission by Brenda Harlen Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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