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CHRISTIAN KELLY CRIED at funerals. For a man who never wept it had been an appalling discovery. He figured the combination of somber hymns, gentle sobbing and church rituals struck some sentimental Irish chord and caused him to blubber like a baby.
He solved the problem by never attending funerals, which solidified his reputation as a hardened sinner. So it was a testament to his affection for Muriel Medina Rose that he came back to the New Zealand hometown he loathed, wearing the darkest pair of shades he could find, and stole into the last pew midway through a stirring rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Kezia Rose appreciated the irony. Knew her grandmother would have, too. Still, it started a fit of giggles she fought to control--hysteria wasn't far away. It didn't help that she stood in full view of the congregation, shaky hands clasped, waiting to do her reading.
She dug one spiky heel into the top of her other foot until tears came to her eyes. Then looked at the coffin and had to force them back. Not yet. Not until she'd done her grandmother proud.
Why hadn't she expected him?
When she felt herself under control, Kezia looked again, coolly now, to where Christian sat, a big-city cat among country pigeons. Maturity had chiseled his features back to strong bone, his thick black hair finally tamed by an expensive cut. Beneath a pair of reflective sunglasses he held his full mouth tight, almost disdainful. In thrall to a newer, stronger grief, she looked--and was not burned. A small sigh of relief escaped her.
The music faltered to a stop in that ragtag way of amateurs and the minister gave her the signal. Three steps to the podium, deepbreath. She found her place in the Bible's tissue-thin pages.
Her voice cracked on the first line; she stopped. Began again, one word at a time, found a rhythm, shut out emotion. The mantle of responsibility soothed her, reminded her who she was. A pillar of the community--teacher, chair of numerous country guilds, churchgoer. New owner of a hundred-year-old ramshackle hotel in Waterview.
The bone-dry Hauraki Plains town had sprung up around the Waterview pub, both named by Kezia's Irish forbears in a fit of whimsy and not--as Christian had once joked--to provoke a powerful thirst in the locals.
Not thinking about him right now.
The words on the page ran out; the last full stop looked like a bullet hole signaling the end of one of the happiest times of her life. Dazed, she looked up to see Christian, in classic Armani, disappear through the arched church doors. And she was glad. Glad he'd made the effort to come, gladder he'd left without making contact. She had enough to cope with today without saying goodbye to someone else she had loved.
CHRISTIAN STUMBLED TOWARD the car park, barely
able to see through his fogged sunglasses. Damn it! Temples pounding, he groped through the open window of his car for a box of tissues, yanked off the shades and mopped up the damage. Kezia's fault. The first break in her voice had brought a lump to his throat, then her words--thin, brave and clear--had sliced at his self-control like stiletto knives until he had to get out of there.
He swung around to face the gabled church and glared at its white clapboards and gray iron roof, mottled with lichen. An old-fashioned church, gravestone companions rising to the left, rose beds to the right in a riotous clash of pinks, reds and yellows. Whoever had planted the damn things had been color blind. Funny he'd never noticed that when he was growing up.
But he remembered the scent. Sweet. Lush with summer heat. He'd always been attracted to women wearing floral scents--now he knew why.
In a prudish black suit at odds with her body. Christian was annoyed at his relief that she still wore her dark hair long. Of course he'd expected her to still be beautiful in that remote, untouchable way that had once driven him mad--but that no longer attracted him. He preferred easy women these days, easy to win, easy to leave. He'd even expected to feel something when he saw her again. A backwash of teenage emotions agitated by shared grief. A reflex, no more. Like crying at funerals.
He hadn't expected to be irked by her lack of recognition. Christian grimaced at his egotism. Maybe Miss September had been right. He was shallow and self-centered. Beholden to no woman and proud of it.
Then why was he wiping away tears in the backwater he'd left in anger fourteen years ago? Wearily he replaced his sunglasses and turned back toward the car park.
Beholden to one woman, then. Muriel Medina Rose. A surrogate mother to a motherless boy--when he'd let her. Which hadn't been as often as she would have liked.
He'd loved that old woman.
Loved taking her out gambling on the rare occasions she visited the city. She, outrageously provocative in an ancient fox-fur stole with its glassy eyes and tidy paws draped nonchalantly over one shoulder and carrying an equally impolitic diamanté-studded cigarette holder. He, in his sharpest suit, entertaining his best girl with his wildest stories.
And not even residual bitterness toward her granddaughter--and this hick town--could keep him from paying his last respects.
His hand on the car door handle, Christian turned, an easy smile disguising his irritation. "Don--how are you?" He reached for the lawyer's hand, still as dry as he remembered. In fact, everything about the sandy-haired old man suggested he was slowly crumbling into dust, from the furrowed jowls and droopy eyelids to the rounded shoulders and widow's hump.
Except he'd looked like this twenty years ago when he'd first represented Christian in the local courthouse. They'd come to know each other well in a resigned "not you again" sort of way until Muriel stepped in and Christian's life as a juvenile delinquent came to an unceremonious end.
"Sad day, sad day." The lawyer shook his head.
"Good to see you here, though. Muriel would have liked it and it saves me a stamp."
Christian tried to make the connection but failed. "The will," Don explained kindly. "Or rather, the letter. She was most particular about you getting the letter."
"I thought her heart attack was unexpected?" The notion that Muriel's final illness might have been deliberately kept from him increased his sense of misuse.
Don glanced back as though to ensure he hadn't been followed, and Christian remembered the man had a flair for the dramatic. "Doc told her two months ago she could keel over anytime," he confided, "but she didn't want a fuss. Told Kezia she was retiring to get her to take over running the hotel. When the end came, my girl was playing bridge--a glass of whiskey in one hand and a grand slam in the other."
Their eyes met. The two men exchanged the "Muriel smile"--equal parts tribute and frustration. Over at the church, the organ started up with a wheeze and voices rose in song for the final hymn. Christian's hand tightened on the car keys.
Don noticed. "Nice Bentley. A Continental GT, if I'm not mistaken." He ran a finger across the silver-gray bonnet, his rheumy eyes twinkling. "A bit understated for you isn't it?"
"It's my funeral car," said Christian.
"You have another?"
"One or two." He looked at Don's shocked expression and grinned. "Actually, four altogether."
Don opened the door, inhaled the smell of expensive leather with relish. "Well, you can give me a lift to the wake in this one. Damned if I'm going to watch them bury her."
Christian's grin faded. "I wasn't planning on staying."
"An hour won't kill you," growled the old man.
"Muriel put a fine whiskey aside for this. The least you can do is toast her memory. Then we'll step into my office and do the handover."
Don Muldoon, being a pragmatist, owned the building adjoining the hotel. "Be where your customers are," was his maxim. He'd even gone so far as to add an interconnecting door, fuelling gossip about the true nature of his relationship with Muriel, which both had reveled in.
He'll miss her badly. Christian wished he hadn't thought of that, wished he'd just handed the old codger some money for postage and left the dairy-farming flatland behind him--with a squeal of tires for old times'sake. But he still owed Don for keeping his secret. Sighing, he crossed to open the passenger door. "Thirty minutes."
Then wondered if his sympathy had been misplaced when Don winked at him. "I'm sure even you and Kezia can exchange pleasantries for that long."
KEZIA NEARLY DROPPED the cupcakes when she pushed through the saloon doors into the cool dimness of the lounge bar and saw Christian leaning against the fireplace mantel, flanked by her grand-mother's elderly cronies.
The afternoon rays beamed through the stained-glass window and fell in prisms on the group. Bernice May was yellow, Don Muldoon, green, and Christian--very appropriately, she thought--glowed red. But nothing could leach the color from those extraordinary eyes--pupils like black atolls in a sea of Pacific blue. Eyes measuring her reaction as she measured his, each looking for a cue from the other.
Kezia rearranged the pink-iced sponges that had tumbled off their pyramid while she decided how she felt. So many times over the years, and in so many moods--hope, despair, righteous anger--she had imagined this meeting. Even when she no longer loved him she'd fantasized about what psychologists called closure and Kezia called having the last word.
How ironic that in this maelstrom of grief for her grandmother she felt...nothing.
Across the room he smiled at her and her heart remembered why she'd loved him, while her mind thanked God she'd got over him. One woman could never hold a man with a smile like that. There were shadows under those intensely blue eyes, she noticed, and shadows in them. Through her numbness she saw an understanding of her grief, and she frowned because she didn't want to connect with anyone ever again. Least of all Christian.
Civil, she decided, putting the plate on a sideboard already groaning under the weight of cakes and club sandwiches. She would be civil.As she headed toward the group, holding out a hand in greeting, Kezia returned Christian's smile. "How nice of you to make the trip." She heard how facile that sounded even before his eyes narrowed. "Nice" had never applied to Christian. He made no move to take her hand. "I mean, Nana would have appreciated it." Even now, trying to retrieve the situation, she'd put the stress on the wrong word. The unspoken implication--but I don't!--hung in the air. Kezia stared up at him helplessly. "Will you please just shake my hand?"
"I don't think we need to be that formal." Christian put down his glass and drew her into an embrace that was half awkward, wholly familiar and so full of reluctant sympathy that Kezia was torn between burying her face in his broad shoulder and never coming out and giving him a sharp slap for his insensitivity.