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Wade watched her carefully. Oh, she was a good actress all right. Anyone would think she was shocked, or even sorry, to hear her father had died. But if that was genuinely the case, maybe she'd have been at his side in his last hours instead of partying her way around the world these past eight years. He fought back the rawness of his own grief for the man who had been his mentorhis best friend. He should have been able to share that grief with the man's daughter. But he knew better than to share any part of his feelings with Piper Mitchell again.
"Yeah. Four days ago. This" he gestured behind him to the throng of people circulating through the lower floors of the house "is his wake."
"No, he can't be dead. You're lying." Piper took a shuddering breath. "You have to be lying!"
"I wouldn't waste my breath lying to you."
His words slowly sank in, digging beyond her disbelief.
He could see the exact moment the reality hit her. Her face paled beneath the healthy tan that had gilded her cheeks only moments ago. Her light-colored irises that glittered like the palest blue topaz all but disappeared as her pupils dilated and the shadows under her eyes hollowed and darkened. She took an unsteady step backward, and instinctively Wade shot out a hand to stop her before she toppled down the tiled stairs behind her.
She tilted her head to look at his hand, curled around her arm.
"I I don't feel very well," she said, her voice trailing away into nothing as her knees buckled and her eyelids fluttered shut.
Silently cursing her for both her timing and her reaction, Wade scooped her up into his arms and carried her through the front door.
"Mr. Collins, is everything all right?" Dexter, the butler, for want of a better description, came hurrying from the ballroom where the bulk of the mourners had gathered over drinks and canapes.
"It's Miss Mitchell, she collapsed when she heard the news about her father," Wade replied, clamping his jaw on the more colorful adjectives he'd have preferred to use to explain her reaction.
"Should I call a doctor?" Dexter asked.
"No, I don't think that's necessary. Let's see how she feels when she wakes. Is her room still prepared?"
"It was one of Mr. Mitchell's express wishes that Miss Piper's room always be kept ready, sir."
"I'll take her up, then." Wade nodded at the pack Piper had dropped on the front porch. "Could you bring her things?"
Wade powered up the wide sweep of stairs with his late boss's daughter in his arms. Despite her height, she barely weighed enough to register on his breathing, and when he lay her down on the frilly comforter that adorned her bed, he noticed how thin and frail she was beneath the jeans and bulky sweatshirt she wore.
"Perhaps it would be best if I called Mrs. Dexter to attend to her," Dexter said smoothly as he deposited the grimy backpack on the polished wooden floor of the room.
"Yes," Wade said, watching for any signs of consciousness from the still inert form on the bed. There was no way he wanted to have his hands on her any longer than necessary. Not anymore. "That would be best."
Why now? he wondered. Why had she come back now? He stood to one side of the bed, watching the shallow rise and fall of her chest beneath the well-worn sweatshirt. He shook his head. He'd seen the bank statements and knew how she'd burned through her trust fund over the past eight years. What the hell had she spent all her money on? Certainly not clothing if what she wore now was anything to go by.
A noise at the door alerted him to the presence of the housekeeper-cum-cook he'd inherited along with Dexter when he'd bought the house from Rex Mitchell a couple years ago.
"Ah, lovey, what have you done to yourself?" Mrs. Dexter muttered under her breath as she pressed a hand to Piper's forehead. "And your beautiful hair, what on earth is this?"
"I believe they're called dreadlocks," Wade said dryly, his lip curling with derision.
Trust Piper to arrive on his doorstep looking like some refugee from another country. It was just the kind of plea for attention they'd all come to expect from her during her late teens.
Mind you, why should he be surprised? It amazed him to realize, deep down, he'd still hoped that she might have changed. But, no. In typical Piper fashion, she'd proven time and again that there was only one person who she cared about in this world, and that person was herself. And nothing and no one would ever get in the way of her pleasure. Not even her dying father.
Not even the baby she'd almost had.
Dexter reappeared in the doorway to Piper's room.
"Mr. Collins, your guests?"
"Yes, thank you, Dexter. I'll be down immediately."
Walking away from the woman on the bed, he returned to the gathering below. The gathering that was supposed to be a celebration of the life of the man who had given Wade every opportunity to shake off the dregs of his upbringing and excel. Rex Mitchell had been an ornery bastard at times, but he'd had a heart bigger than most and believed in rewarding hard work. And he'd loved his daughter, who had repaid him for that love by walking away from him without a backward glance. Sure, he'd tried to control Piper, but she'd been headstrong and needed a firm hand to guide her. For all the good that had done any of them.
Wade joined the throng in the ballroom of the stately home that was as much a part of Auckland's history as the families who had lived within its walls. He carried on, going through the motions, accepting messages of condolence, sharing stories that brought bittersweet smiles to everyone there. Finally, though, it all had to end and he was alone. Alone except for the Dexters, still clearing away glassware and dishes, and for the woman who'd remained upstairs.
Just when would she show her face again? he thought. Well, he wasn't in a hurry to force a confrontation. The outcome was bound to be less than pleasant.
He crossed the hall into the library, and made his way straight to the sideboard. The cognac gurgled satisfyingly from the neck of its bottle, the amber liquid splashing within the bowl of its receptor. Continuing the ritual he had enjoyed most eveningsbefore Rex's illness had left him weak and bed boundWade settled into the wingback chair beside the fire and lifted the glass in a silent toast to the empty chair on the other side.
"I see you couldn't wait to hit Dad's cognac."
Wade stiffened at the sound of Piper's voice from the entrance but he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of knowing how much she got under his skin with her choice of words. She, better than anyone, knew how he felt about alcohol and its disrespectful consumption.
"Care to join me?" he drawled in response, not even bothering to turn his face toward her.
"Sure, why not."
He heard her pour herself a measure then move across the hand-knotted carpet that covered the floor between them. With a tired sigh she settled into the chair that had been her father's. The fresh clean scents of soap and a light fragrance teased his nostrils. He cast her a glance. She'd showered and changed into a clean pair of jeans and a finely woven sweater. Beneath the fabric he could make out the lines of her bones. Even her face was more angular now. Harder, more experienced. A far cry from the spoiled young woman who'd taken his heart and crushed it beneath the soles of her feet when she'd walked out eight years ago.
"I can't believe he's really gone," she said softly.
He knew what she meant. Even he'd found it hard to face facts when Rex had handed the business reins over to him eighteen months ago. And before that, when Rex had negotiated the sale of his ancestral home to Wade to prevent it from sliding into a developer's hands after his death.
"Yeah, well, he is."
"I never thought he'd die."
"Neither did he, at first. The success rate for beating testicular cancer was in his favor."
"Cancer? I thought he died of a heart attack."
"What made you think that?"
"I don't know. I had no idea he was sick. I just assumed it was his heart. He always worked so hard."
Wade watched as her eyes washed with tears. He hadn't agreed with Rex's decision to withhold the details of his illness on the rare occasions Piper had made telephone contact. In recent months, the older man's stubbornness on the matter had been the only contentious bone between them. Rex hadn't believed Piper was strong enough to handle the stress of his illness, but with Piper as Rex's only living issue, Wade knew Rex deserved to have her there in his final days. And Wade hadn't really given a damn if she was strong enough for it or not.
Piper continued, "I'd have come home sooner had I known."
"Maybe that's part of why he didn't tell you," Wade retorted, her words just adding fuel to his frustration. She hadn't seen fit to share those last years of her father's life with him. Was it supposed to pacify Wade that she'd have been willing to come for Rex's death?
She bristled under his words, her eyes clearing instantly and the tears being swiftly replaced with a spark of anger.
"What do you mean by that?" Piper demanded.
"Exactly what I said. You know what your father was like. I'm not denying he wanted you home. He wanted that every day you were gone. But I think that deep down he still wanted you to come home because you wanted to, not because you had to."
"So you're saying I disappointed himagain." Her words were as defensive as the closed expression now on her face.
"Don't put words in my mouth, Piper." He expelled a frustrated huff of air, refusing to rise to her bait, and transferred his gaze to the fireplace. "Above everything, Rex always wanted to shelter you from the big bad world. In this last instance, that included his illness. He didn't want to put you through everything he was going through. Besides, it's all relative now, isn't it?"
"I think it's safe to say that we can take my father's continuing disappointment in me as a given," she said bitterly before taking a sip of her drink. "You, however, have remained the golden boy."
Piper fought back the urge to scream at Wade, to do something, anything to provoke him into a fight. After all, they'd had quite enough practice at it in their time together. It had always been that way between them. Passions running high, emotions deep. All of it crashing madly on the surface. A fight was something she could handle.
What she couldn't handle was the irrefutable truth that she'd never see her father againnever hear his booming voice through the home that had been in her family for generations, never feel the warmth of his arms clasping her to his barrel chest. The gaping hole that had taken up residence somewhere near her heart widened.
She would never have the chance to make it up to him for all the stress and emotional hardship she'd caused ever since, at the age of fourteen, she'd realized the power of her femininity. She knew he'd been sorry to see her leave for overseas shortly after she'd turned twenty, but she'd have been an idiot not to realize that his sorrow was tempered with relief at not having to deal with her, at times, appalling behavior in close quarters anymore.
Piper put down her glass on the small side table and pulled up her feet onto the seat, her knees tucked under her chin and her arms wrapped around her lower legs. How could he have kept his illness a secret from her like that? She'd had a right to know. He'd sounded tired the last time she'd called. When was that? Maybe three months ago? He should have told her.
A shaft of jealousy speared through her. He'd obviously shared everything with Wade. The two men had been close ever since Rex had taken on Wade as an intern at his export company. Wade had quickly become the son Rex had never had. The mythical son she'd never measured up to as Rex's only child.
She'd envied their closeness and done her level best to disrupt itfailing miserably in the process and irrevocably hurting the only two men she'd ever loved.
She hazarded a look at the man seated opposite her and felt that old familiar punch of desire. Even with that glowering expression on his face, he still had the power to make her nerves hum and her heart skip a beat. He'd certainly grown up since she'd been away. His face had settled into far more serious lines, and there was an edge to his jaw that the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow only enhanced. He filled out his designer suit with more breadth than he'd had beforeit looked good on him. Clearly hard work and good living had served him well.
She flicked a glance to his left handno sign of a ring she notedthen castigated herself for even caring. He'd made his antipathy toward her quite clear. Besides, the new Piper Mitchell had determined to make amends for her past transgressions. Transgressions that included how she'd treated Wade, how she'd let her love for him make her selfish, demandingwanting more from him than he was willing to give. She was so sorry now for the way she'd behaved, the choice she'd forced him to make between her and her father. Those amends needed to start now.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know how much Dad meant to you, how close the two of you were. It must have been tough for you."
Wade looked at her, genuine surprise on his face. "Thank you," he answered.
There were fine lines of strain around his slate gray eyes that had never been there before. He looked thoroughly worn out.
"Did he suffer?"
Wade shook his head sharply. "Only inasmuch as he couldn't do what he wanted to do. The medical staff worked hard to keep him comfortable. He stayed here, at home, right to the end. We installed a hospital bed in the morning room and he had round-the-clock professional care."
"Thank you for being there for him."
"He'd have done it for me," Wade answered simply. "Besides, there was no place else I would rather have been."
And there it was again. The subtle slap. The reminder that she hadn't been there. Piper clamped down on her instinctive need to justify herself, her choices, her behavior. She was past that now. There was no way she could turn back time and rewrite history, but she could make a new beginning and that started here and now.