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THE DRIZZLE FALLING FROM the gray skies blended with the steady drone of Father McDonald's voice until Tasha Simmons lost the ability to tell them apart.
The dull gleam of her mother's casket mirrored the gloom of the skies. Tears welled and receded until Tasha's eyes and throat ached.
Flanked by her sisters, Nora and Natalie, and Natalie's husband, Evan, she blocked out the pain that came with the knowledge her father was only one sister over, and she locked her knees to keep from sinking to the ground.
Suddenly, the short holiday visits over the years weren't enough. Not nearly enough to get her through something like this. She'd give anything to have one more day with her mother. Just one day.
Fingers tightening around the black plastic umbrella handle, Tasha blocked out faces she'd known her entire life until they were as anonymous as the raindrops pelting the small group. It seemed a lifetime ago that she'd ever been the girl they remembered.
The priest ended his reading from the scripture meant to offer some measure of solace to the ones left behind, and everyone murmured "Amen." He gestured to her father who, with Natalie's help, approached the casket with slow, stiff steps, a rose clutched in his hand. Tasha averted her eyes, not wanting to watch as her father disintegrated into harsh, shuddering sobs. Staring at the wet ground, the rain creating muddy rivulets down the side of the hill her mother would be buried in, she suddenly hated her sisters'decision not to cremate. Tasha didn't want her mother lowered into the cold ground, surrounded by worms, ants and other disgusting insect life. The grief she was holding back rose in her throat and she struggledto get a grip.
Her mother wasn't supposed to die so young. She wanted to scream it to the heavens until her voice was hoarse or until it disappeared entirely.
It wasn't supposed to end like this. Father McDonald indicated it was their turn and the three of them placed their snow-white roses beside that of their father's. Bitterness filled her mouth and tainted her thoughts. What significance did placing flowers on a casket have on anything? Her mother could not enjoy their beauty or smell their sweet scent.
Tasha passed Nora as she returned to her place and startled at the red-rimmed stare she received. There was more than grief in her sister's slate eyes and there was no doubt in Tasha's mind that it was directed toward her.
An apology was useless; she wouldn't even try. Their mother was dead. Would it have mattered if she'd come home any sooner?
Father McDonald gave his final words, ending the short service. She dragged a deep breath into her lungs, then a shudder followed as the cold went straight to her bones. Tasha murmured to Natalie that she was leaving but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
"Hello " She racked her brain for the woman's identity, but even as the woman drew closer, a sad smile on her plump face, Tasha's mind blanked.
"I'm so sorry about your mom. She was such an amazing woman."
Tasha nodded and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief clutched in her hand. The woman kept talking, and a spark of recognition flared in her mind, but Tasha couldn't remember her name.
"Goodness, what's it been? Fifteen years or so since you left home to go to Stanford? What were you studying?"
The woman shook her finger at Tasha in thought. "No, don't tell me anthropology! That's right. You were getting a degree in anthropology. How'd that work out for you?"
"Ah well, I've been working for the Peace Corps," she offered, struggling to fan the spark into something less frustrating than just the fleeting image of a long-ago friendship.
"You don't remember me, do you?" Tasha hesitated. She didn't want to hurt the woman's feelings when she'd clearly cared enough about Tasha's mom to attend the funeral, but there was no help for it. She shook her head regretfully, but the woman graciously waved away her consternation.
"Don't sweat it. I don't exactly look the same as I did in high school. Not many of us do, well, except you, of course. You don't look as if you've aged a day. Plop a tiara on your head and you'd be the spitting image of you at seventeen when you were prom queen."
A frightening thought. Tasha stiffened and searched out her sisters. Natalie caught her beseeching stare and hurried over as quickly as the cemetery mud and her shoes would allow.
"Hannah, how are you?" Natalie asked, a pleasant smile fixed to her face despite her obvious fatigue. "Things good down at the hardware store?"
Hannah Donner. Tasha slapped a mental hand to her forehead for blanking on someone who'd once been a close friend. It seemed unfathomable that she'd forget Hannah's name, but weariness and grief had robbed her of higher mental ability.Always the forgiving sort, Hannah seemed to move right past Tasha's momentary memory lapse and nodded in answer to Natalie's question, but her expression dimmed appropriately in light of the reasons they were gathered. She reached out a hand and Tasha reluctantly accepted. "I'll always remember your mom like she was when we were in high schoolthe cheer squad's very own personal team mom. Nobody made better brownies."
"Thank you," Tasha choked out as a wave of unwanted nostalgia clogged her throat. Memories of sleepovers, girl-talk, childish dreams and blissful sighs over cute guys rushed her brain as she struggled against the sensation that she couldn't breathe. She was relieved when Nora trudged up to them, her expression hard.
"Are you coming to the wake?" Tasha averted her eyes, inwardly flinching at the anger in her youngest sister's unforgiving stare. "Uh, no, I'll probably just head back to the hotel for some rest," she answered, catching Hannah's nod of understanding and Nora's darkening frown. "I'm pretty tired"
"I should've known." Nora cut her off and continued toward her vehicle with short, angry steps.
Tasha watched as Nora climbed into her truck and held her breath in alarm as her sister drove too fast out of the cemetery parking lot.
"She's taking this pretty hard, isn't she?" Hannah asked, though the question was rhetorical. Missy's death had taken a toll on the entire Simmons clan. Only Nora covered her grief with the anger she held against Tasha.
Natalie pressed her lips together as if to apologize for their youngest sister, but Tasha read understanding in her middle sister's eyes and felt outnumbered.
They were ganging up on her. And, the reason chafed.
A letter, written in Natalie's flowery script, appeared in her memory and she bit down on her bottom lip. She hadn't known. Couldn't have known. The original letter had somehow been eaten by the postal service, and by the time the second letter arrived a month later the cancer had moved with deadly accuracy throughout their mother's body before she could board a plane. Yet, her sisters blamed her. "Tasha?"
Natalie's voice penetrated her thoughts and she realized both women were staring.
"Are you all right?" Hannah asked, taking in Tasha's rigid state.
Tasha slowly unclenched her fists and offered a small smile. "I'm tired," she answered, and Hannah nodded her understanding.
"Of course you are," she said. "After everything, I'm sure you're exhausted.
"Well, uh, call me while you're still in town and we'll go to lunch. Catch up on old times."
Tasha nodded with false promise but shuddered privately. No, thank you. The past was a place she rarely visited.
And for good reason.
JOSH HALVORSEN WENDED his way through the departing crowd following the service, sadness at a vibrant life cut short dogging his steps. He hated the saying that God only took the good ones, because somehow it seemed a penalty for being a decent human being. Growing up, Missy Simmons had been like another mother to him, though at times, he certainly felt one had been enough. Ahead, he saw Tasha talking with Hannah Donner and his breath hitched in his chest as he saw her in the flesh after all these years.
He slowed his pace and people flowed around him. At one time they'd been inseparable, crazy in love until it had ended badly and he'd limped away nursing a broken heart and bruised ego.
The last time they spoke was the day they broke up during her first year at Stanford. They learned quickly long-distance relationships were hard to maintaineven when the love was strong. In the end, fear of losing her coupled with irrational jealousy eventually drove a wedge between them even their love couldn't withstand. The echo of their last words ghosted his mind and regret followed.
He'd thought time had dulled those feelings, but the moment his eyes alighted on her willowy figure, wrapped in an austere black woolen overcoat, he'd known by the startling zing that sent his heart racing that he was wrong.
An invisible connection flowed between them, tethering him to the spot despite his desire to blend into the crowd. He'd paid his respects, nothing more was required of him. Perhaps but he couldn't bring himself to walk away as if he'd never been there. Good manners dictated he offer his condolences to Gerald Simmons and to Tasha.
"Tasha " Her name felt foreign on his lips, almost forgotten, but he knew that was impossible.
His name came out in an astonished husky murmur that reminded him of other times, and for a split second he wondered how things might've turned out if different choices had been made. He glanced away, shoving his near-frozen hands deep into his jacket pockets, until he could look at her without distraction.
"I'm sorry about your mom," he offered, his gut twisting at the pain he read in her red-rimmed green eyes before she concealed them behind dark glasses. "She was a good woman who didn't deserve to die so young."
"Yes, she was." Tasha nodded. "She thought the world of you," she said, drawing a deep breath. "And she would've been happy to know you came."
"I'd heard she was sick. I was hoping for a recovery," he said, noting the subtle differences in Tasha, none being uncomplimentary. She was still beautiful. Maturity had treated her well, accentuating her natural grace and refining her soft, cultured voice.
"Thank you," she said, bringing her umbrella down closer to block out the wind that was wreaking havoc on her fine hair that hung loose to her shoulders, the moisture in the air bringing out the stubborn curl she used to hate. He remembered playing with the soft strands, twining them around his finger on lazy summer days spent down at the Merced River.
"You haven't changed a bit." The observation drifted out of his mouth and her startled yet instantly guarded reaction made him wish he'd kept it to himself. She gave him a brief smile that hovered too closely to patronizing to be taken at face value, and he sensed more had changed than he realized. "Take care, Tasha," he said, and quickly moved on.
He was nearly to his truck when he heard his name called. Turning, he was surprised to see Natalie hurrying toward him.