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The photograph sealed it.
The newspaper Brand Noble had bought at JFK International Airport on his return to the United States had carried a story about tonight's black-tie museum exhibition opening. But it was the photo of Clea standing beside a statue of a stone tiger that had caused his heart to stop. It had been four years since he'd seen his wife, and she looked more beautiful than ever. Her raven hair unchanged, her eyes still wide and green.
Brand was not about to allow anything as insignificant as the lack of an embossed invitation to keep him from her. He'd waited long enough.
Now, two hours later, Brand slammed the door of the yellow-and-black cab that had ferried him to Manhattan's Museum Mile. Turning his back on the midweek bustle of commuters hastening home in the fading light, he focused on the Museum of Ancient Antiquities towering ahead.
Clea was in there
A uniformed guard, almost as wide as he was tall, blocked the entrance, and his scrutiny reminded Brand that in his haste to see Clea he had yet to don the rented tuxedo jacket still slung across his left arm.
Brand's mouth slanted in a wry grimace. What would the man have thought of the battered fatigues he'd worn for the better part of four years?
Impatience and anticipation ratcheted up another notch, and the ache to see Cleahold her, kiss herconsumed him.
Breaking into a lope, Brand headed for the glass doors, shrugging on the dinner jacket as he went. He pulled the collar straight and smoothed down the satin lapels with scarred and callused fingertips. As the security guard examined the invitations of the group in front, Brand tagged on behind the tailenders. To his relief, the guard waved him through with the rest of the party.
He'd negotiated the first barrier.
Now to find Clea.
Brand would've loved the tiger.
As always, the sight of the stone figure transfixed Clea. The chatter and clinking of champagne glasses faded away as she studied the powerful feline. Crafted by a Sumerian stone carver eons ago, the leashed power of the piece was compelling, calling to her on a primal level that she could not explain.
Without question Brand would have loved it. That had been her very first thought when she'd spotted the half life-size cat eighteen months earliershe'd had to have it. Convincing Alan Daley, the museum's head curator, and the acquisition board to acquire it had taken some doing; the financial outlay had been considerable. But the statue had proved to be a crowd pleaser.
And it was inexorably linked in her mind to Brand, serving as a daily memorial to her husband.
Her late husband.
The voice that broke into her thoughts was softer than Brand's rough velvet tones. Not Brand, but Harry.
Brand was dead. Tossed without honor into some mass grave in the hot, dry desert of Iraq. Years of unending questions, desperate prayers and daily flashes of hope were finally over. Ended, irrevocably, in the most unwelcome manner nine months ago.
But he would never be forgotten. Clea had vowed to make certain of that.
Determinedly shrugging off the shroud of melancholy, she brushed a curl off her face and turned away from the statue to her father's business associate and her oldest friend. "Yes, Harry?"
Harry Hall-Lewis set his hands on her shoulders and gazed down at her. "Yes? Now that's the word I've been waiting a long time to hear you say."
The playful note in his tone caused Clea to roll her eyes. How she wished he'd tire of the game he'd made of the arranged-marriage plan their fathers had hatched for them two decades ago. "Not now, Harry." On cue her phone beeped.
Relieved, she extracted her cell phone from her clutch and glanced at it. "It's Dad." As chairman of the museum's board of trustees, Donald Tomlinson had been giving prospective patrons a private tour of the exhibit.
After listening to her father for a few moments, Clea hung up and said to Harry, "He's finished the tour, and yes, he has secured more funding. He wants us to come join him."
"You're changing the subject." Harry's hands tightened momentarily on her bare shoulders, making Clea aware of the brevity of the bodice of her floor-length gown. Then the moment of self-consciousness was gone as Harry released her from the friendly hold with a chuckle. "One day I'll convince you to marry me. And that will be the day you realize what you've been missing all these years."
Clea stepped back, unaccountably needing a little distance from him. "Oh, Harry, that joke wore thin a long time ago."
The humor evaporated from his face.
"Is the thought of marrying me so repulsive?"
His hangdog expression added to her guilt. They'd grown up together. Their fathers had been best friends; in all ways that mattered Harry was the brother she'd never had. Why couldn't he understand that she needed him in that role, not as the husband their fathers had cast him as decades ago?
Gently touching the sleeve of his tailored jacket, she said, "Oh, Harry, you're my best friend, I love you dearly"
"I sense a but coming."
The winking glitter from the chandeliers overhead gave his eyes an unnatural sparkle. Despite his carefree persona, Harry had always been perceptive. And he was right, there was a but. A great big, tall, dark and heartbreakingly absent but.
The love of her life and utterly irreplaceable. Grief had created a black void in her life that drained her of joy. How she missed him!
Clea shut off the line of thought that always led to unstanched pain and wild regret, and focused instead on Harry. "I'm just not ready to think of marriage again."
She doubted she'd ever be ready.
"Surely you don't still harbor hope that Brand is alive?"
Harry's words caused the frenetic buzz that had been driving her for months to subside, forcing her to confront the pain she'd so carefully kept from facing. Wearinessand a lonely longingovertook her. All at once Clea wished she was home, alone in the bedroom she'd once shared with Brand, cocooned in the comfort of their bed. The familiar ache of loss swamped her.
Dropping her hand from Harry's sleeve, she wrapped her arms around her tummy and said in a high, thin voice, "This is the wrong time for this discussion."
Harry caught her arm and said quietly, "Clea, for the past nine months, since you received confirmation that Brand is dead, you never want to talk about him."
Clea flinched at the reminder of that awful day.
"I know you did everything in your power to find him, Clea, that you never gave up hoping that he was alive. But he's not. He's dead, and probably has been for over four yearshowever much you tried to deny it. You have to accept it."
"I know he's" her voice broke "dead." Harry looked as shocked by her disjointed statement as she felt.
Coldness crept through her.
Defeated, Clea's shoulders drooped and the soft satin of the sea-green dressthe color of Brand's eyessagged around her body. She shivered, suddenly chilled despite the warm summer evening.
It was the first time she'd admitted Brand's death out loud.
For so long she'd refused to stop hoping. She'd prayed.
She'd kept the flame of faith alive deep in her heart, in that sacred place only Brand had ever touched. Clea had even convinced herself that if Brand had been dead a piece of her soul would have withered. So all through the monthsthe yearsof waiting she'd stubbornly refused to extinguish the last flicker of hope. Not even when her father and friends were telling her to face reality: Brand wasn't coming back.
Harry spoke, breaking into her thoughts. "Well, accepting he's dead is a major step forward."
"Look, I know it's been a tough time for you. Those first days of silence." Harry shook his head. "And then discovering he'd gone to Baghdad with another woman"
"I might've been wrong about Brand still being alive," Clea interrupted heatedly, "but Brand was not having an affair with Anita FreemanI don't care what the investigators say." Clea wouldn't tolerate having her memory of Brand defiled. "It's not true. Their minds belong in some Baghdad sewer."
"But your father"
"I don't care what Dad thinks, I absolutely refuse to believe it. Besides we both know Dad never cared much for Brand. Let it rest." She hesitated. "Brand and Anita were colleagues."
"Colleagues?" Harry's voice was loaded with innuendo.
"Okay, they dated a few times. But it was over before Brand met me." How Clea hated this. The way the gossip tarnished the love she and Brand had shared.
"That might have been what Brand wanted you to believe. But the investigators found proof that they'd lived together for over a year in London before he met youhell, that's longer than he was married to you, Clea. Why did he never mention that? Your husband died in a car crash with the woman in the Iraq desert. Stop deceiving yourself!"
A quick scan around revealed no one close enough to overhear their conversation. Thank God. Clea stepped closer and spoke in a low tone: "They did not live togetherBrand would've told me that. The relationship was brief. They only kept contact because of work. Brand was an antiquities expert, Anita was an archaeologist. Of course they ran across each other."
"But you'll never know for sure. Because Brand never even told you he was going to Iraq."
Unable to argue with Harry's logic, Clea straightened and said, "I have no intention of conducting a postmortem on this."
Her husband was dead. It was tragic enough that her bone-deep conviction that he'd been out there somewherehurting maybe suffering memory loss waiting to be foundhad been misguided.
But then, everyone had always thought she was mad to hope he might still be alive in the face of the mounting evidence that he must be dead. The burned-out wreck of Brand's rented vehicle had been found in the desert, and nearby villagers had confirmed burying the charred remains of a man and a woman in a local mass grave.
Despite the investigators' certainty that Brand had perished in the desert, Clea had wanted proof. That it had indeed been Brand who had died, not someone else. Not even the fact that no one had seen or heard from Brand since his disappearance or the fact that his bank accounts had remained untouched could quell her hopes.
But nine months ago, after years of lingering hope, Clea had received the proof she'd dreaded.
Brand's wedding ring. Stolen off one of the corpses by a member of the burial team and later turning up in a pawnbroker's stall at the local village market.
Brand would never have taken his ring off. Never. Finally, no choice remained but to face the truth: Brand had died in that wreck in the desert. He was not coming back.
Her beloved husband was dead. There'd been nothing left for her to do but complete the formalities.
The court accepted what her father, the investigating team and the lawyers dispassionately called "the facts" and made an order confirming that Brand was dead, authorizing a death certificate to be issued.
The day she'd received the death certificate, the final document charting Brand's life, Clea's heart had shattered into glass-sharp fragments. She'd believed she would never come to terms with the harsh finality of it.
Harry's familiar features became a blur as her vision teared up. Yet amid the ashes of despair she'd found a way to combat her loneliness.
"Now I've upset you." Harry looked more wretched than ever. "I never meant to do that."
"It's not you."
Clea blinked furiously. How could she explain that everything made her feel tearful? The doctor said that was normalit would pass.
"It's me. I'm just all over the place right now."
That caused Harry to take a hurried step back.
Patting the front of his dinner jacket, Clea gave a wan smile. "It's okay, I promise I won't bawl my eyes out."
Harry gave a hasty glance around, then said gamely, "You can cry on my shoulder anytime you want."
Her throat ached. "I'm done crying. I knowand acceptthat Brand is dead. I know that I have to move on. Everything is going to be all right." If she told herself that often enough she might one day start believing it. For good measure she added, "And I've got something to live for."
"Clea, if you need meI'll be there for you. You know that."
Yet despite his brave words Harry looked so alarmed by the prospect of her falling apart here, in front of New York's high society, that Clea couldn't help smiling. "Harry, thank you. You're the best."
Relief lit Harry's expression. "Isn't that what friends are for?"