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"Jack we weren't expecting you in today . Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry."
His secretary's eyes welled up as she opened her plump arms.
Jack forced himself to squeeze her shoulder as he sidestepped her embrace. "Thanks for your support, Heather. Has Mr. Yoshida arrived?"
Her mouth dropped along with her arms. "Why, yes, but surely you're not I mean, Dave is covering for you ."
Jack dumped his briefcase on his desk and turned impatiently.
"They're in the boardroom," she finished.
"There's a lawyer called Grimble arriving in thirty minutes. Look after him until I'm free, will you? I'll be leaving after that." He pulled a crumpled list out of his pocket. "Meantime, ring the New Zealand Herald with the funeral notice."
Heather's eyes filled again. "Of course. Is there anything else I can do?"
His cell phone vibrated. Jack removed it from the breast pocket of his suit, checked the caller ID, then handed it over. "Yeah. Keep people off my back."
He hadn't meant to sound so harsh, but he had too much still to do to commiserate with second-tier friends and relatives. "I'm sorry." Taking a deep breath, Jack started again. "If you could accept condolences and give everyone the funeral details?"
With a sympathetic nod, Heather took the call. "Jack Galloway's phone. Can I help you?"
He'd forgotten how busy the aftermath of tragedy was. Getting the bodies shipped home, making the important phone calls and initiating funeral arrangements left no time to mourn.
Jack buttoned his suit jacket and straightened his tie, then strode down the corridor to the boardroom. Not that he had tears in him anymore. Grief had hollowed him out six years ago; there wasnothing left now, except the echo of it.
"I'm afraid I don't know any details of Friday night's accident," he heard Heather say behind him, and his fingers tightened convulsively around the boardroom's ornate door handle.
All these well-meaning people had a right to know, but to Jack they felt like rats gnawing at the corpses. He wanted to beat them off with sticks, then shake his brother's body until Anthony's teeth rattled. You've had your joke, Ants. Now get up.
Steeling himself, he pulled the heavy door open and entered the boardroom.
Half a dozen men looked up from one end of an enormous oval table, but Jack focused on only one. "Yoshida-san, my apologies for not being here to greet you."
The man returned his handshake warmly. "It is good to see you again, Galloway-san." They were old friends, but only in karaoke bars, belting out eighties hits at three in the morning, did they call each other by their first names.
Jack's vice president gaped at him. "I was just about to tell Mr. Yoshida and his associates that"
"No need," Jack interrupted, "I'm here. Let's get down to business so these gentlemen can get to the airport in good time." He shook hands with the rest of the Japanese delegation. "What kind of weather will you be going back to in Tokyo?"
After exchanging pleasantries, they brought out the joint venture contracts that would take Jack's construction company into the big timea multimillion-dollar residential subdivision in outer Auckland. He signed the papers and felt nothing.
As their lawyers tidied paperwork, he and Hiro Yoshida strolled to the floor-to-ceiling window. Twenty-five stories up, it normally offered panoramic views of Auckland's harbor, but on this early November day blinding torrents of spring rain lashed the pane. Jack could feel the last chill of a persistent winter seeping through the thick glass.
Patting his pockets, he retrieved the lighter and ten-pack of Marlboros he'd bought en route to the office. He offered one to Hiro.
One of the lawyers glanced up from the papers and cleared his throat. "I'm afraid New Zealand workplace laws prohibit"
Hiro leaned forward so Jack could light his cigarette. "I think today," he said gravely, "we make an exception."
So he knew. Jack drew deeply, welcoming the once-familiar burn in his lungs, then exhaled. It felt like the first time he'd breathed in two-and-a-half days.
Hiro did the same, watching him through the fragrant smoke. "You should be sitting with your brother's body, my friend," he said simply, and Jack remembered the Japanese mourned their dead through wakes.
He delayed his answer by tapping his ash into a nearby pot containing a rubber plant. "He and his wife died while they were on holiday in New Caledonia. They their remains are being flown home today."
"But you have other family, do you not?"
"No immediate family." Not anymore.
Hiro's black brows creased in surprise. "Your secretary said they had children."
Jack's sanity over the last horrific forty-eight hours had depended on not thinking too much about the children. "Yes, of course." He lifted the cigarette, saw his fingers were trembling, and dropped his hand. "They flew back early this morning with one of my sister-in-law's relatives. I'll see them this afternoon."
The older man took Jack's cigarette and said gently, "Go now, my friend."
Jack bowed. "Hai," he said simply, then obediently left the room and headed straight back to his office. The kids needed familiar faces around them now, not some strange uncle they saw only a few times a year. He'd delegated the personal stuff to people who knew the family's day-to-day routines.
Others had gone to the house and turned on power and hot water, others had organized groceries and done the airport run to pick up the kids and their maternal aunt this morning.
But at 3:00 a.m., after lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, Jack had got up and driven to the house. He'd picked up Anthony's running shoes, still lying inside the front door, and taken Julia's apron from the hook in the kitchen. Methodically removed every sign that might suggest to their children they could be coming back at any moment.
He knew how much these things hurt.
Entering his office now, Jack saw a bald man pacing the plush carpet. He'd forgotten the lawyer. Their eyes met and Grimble immediately adopted a sympathetic expression.
Jack waved away his condolences. "Let's skip the formalities, shall we?" He gestured for the man to take a seat, but remained standing himself. "You said on the phone yesterday that I was the executor of the will no, don't start reading the whole thing. Give me the guts of it."
Slightly flustered, Grimble cleared his throat. "The mortgage will be paid off by compulsory insurance, but your brother and his wife had no other policies."
"Teacher's salary, and Julia didn't work," Jack murmured. "It's what I expected . So the sale of the house is the only money the children will have?" The deal he'd just signed started to mean something again. "I'll organize fiscal support through the guardian." This, he knew, Ants and Julia would have covered. "Who is it?"
"Why, you." Grimble seemed surprised he didn't know that.
Feeling as though he'd just taken a hit to the solar plexus, Jack sat down hard on the corner of his desk. "Me!"
The lawyer nodded as he checked his notes, then delivered the knockout punch. "You and somebody called Rosalind Valentine."
Roz sat on her best friend's couch in suburban Auckland, reading a story to Julia's just-orphaned three-year-old daughter. It was hard to lose yourself in a story you'd read twelve times since breakfast, but she tried.
"'The dump,'" she began, "'isn't a place most animals would choose to live, but Pinky the mouse wasn't one of them.'" On her lap, Cassie stared fixedly at the picture of the jaunty rodent, her small fingers absently pulling at a loose thread on the well-worn couch.
"Turn the page for me, honey," Roz said, to distract her, but Cassie was a multitasker and managed to keep her grip on the thread. What the hell, the foam was already showing through, anyway. It was that kind of house, unpretentious and restful, reflective of the people whowho hadlived here. Roz picked up her glass of water from the coffee table and sipped, trying to loosen her throat. She'd had to do it a lot since the airport run this morning. Be brave for the children.
Snatches of conversation drifted across the hall from the kitchen, where the latest bunch of well-wishers was dropping off casseroles and condolences. "I can't look at those poor kids without crying," said a neighbor.
Roz read louder. "'Pinky loved the growwwwl of the bulldozers '" she paused for Cassie to growl "' as they pushed the rubbish into neat piles.'" The house still felt cold from being shut up for two weeks, so she did up the buttons of the toddler's rainbow cardigan.
"I don't think," said another female voice, "that the baby understands."
Cassie growled again, with a deep, carrying ferocity that startled the unseen speakers into silence, and Roz gave her an approving squeeze. "This mini madam," Julia had always said fondly of her youngest, "is going to be an opera diva or a trade union activist."
Julia. The words on the page suddenly blurred.
"Read faster," Cassie ordered. The doorbell rang and Roz put the book aside. More flowers or offers of help.
"I'll get it." Julia's sister, Fiona Evans, bustled through the living room, pausing to pry loose the thread from Cassie's grip. "No, darling, that's naughty." A youthful forty-two, the petite salon-blonde had a refined English accent reminiscent of boarding school matrons. "Here, have one of these instead." She thrust the chocolate box on the table toward her niece.
"It's pretty close to dinnertime," Roz ventured, but cautiously, because Fee had been staking territory since she'd landed in New Zealand this morning. By 10:00 a.m. everyone had got the messageshe was in charge. She was obviously using superefficiency to manage her grief. The sisters and their families had been on holiday together, and poor Fee had had to identify the bodies. But her behavior was exhausting the kids. And Roz was pretty sure that Julia would hate to see her daughter being stuffed with candy.
"Special circumstances," Fee insisted. She handed Cassie two chocolates and carried on to the door.
Roz waited until she was out of earshot. "Can I have one of those?"
Cassie popped the one she'd just licked into her godmother's mouth.
Somewhere Julia would be laughing. "'The seagulls,'" Roz read, trying not to think about the soggy mess melting on her tongue, "'were rough and cheeky, but they had placed webbed feet on foreign shores, and in Pinky's eyes, that made them gods.'"
Jack came through the door. Roz gagged, then forced herself to swallow the chocolate. She'd thought she was ready for this.
Cassie cupped Roz's hot face with small, sticky hands and fixed her with a glare from eyes the same nut-brown as her hair. "Read the book," she said in a pitch-perfect impersonation of her Auntie Fee.
"'They liked being thought gods instead of scavenging bandits, so they often visited his cardboard box home at the far end of the dump.'"
"Hey, Cassandra." Roz pinned her gaze to the page as Jack crouched down in front of them and offered Cassie a badly wrapped present. "I'm your uncle Jack, remember? I've bought you candy."
Cassie grabbed her blankie, scrunched her eyes shut and turned her head away. It was an old trick, but Jack immediately withdrew a couple of paces.
Roz fought the urge to follow her goddaughter's lead as she felt his attention swing to her. For a moment longer she stared at the mouse in the yellow-checkered waistcoat, standing proudly outside his ramshackle box.
How do you greet a man who once saw you lying on the carpet in a hysterical heap, begging him to stay? Lifting her chin, Roz eyeballed his left cheekbone and said coolly, "Hello, Jack."
A man who'd just lost the last of his generation of family? Through a throat raw from crying, she added hoarsely, "I'm sorry we have to meet under such circumstances."
"We got guardianship. Is that your doing?" demanded her ex-husband.
Startled, Roz met river-green eyes and saw the same boarded-up expression that used to throw her into gut-wrenching despair. Her control snapped. "And bloody sorry that we have to meet at all." Then the import of his words struck her, and she cried, "What?" simultaneously with Fiona, who'd come up behind him.
Cassie was peeking at Jack through half-closed lashes.
"Where's Daddy?" she asked suddenly. The adults froze. "Oh, I forgot." She turned another page of the book with chubby fingers. "He's dead."
With a sob, Fiona fled to the kitchen. Roz gulped water, ridding herself of the chocolate's residual sweetness so she wouldn't throw up. Jack turned his back and walked to the window. Even slumped, his broad shoulders blocked out the anemic light of an overcast afternoon. "Oh, God," he muttered brokenly, "what a mess."
As she stared at him, inconsequential thoughts filtered through Roz's shock. He'd cut his dark blond hair short; it didn't touch his collar anymore. She recalled the only other time she'd seen him in a suit.
At their wedding.
Cassie growled, and automatically Roz began reading again, but her mind was elsewhere. They were guardians? "It's too dark," complained the little girl.
Dazed, Roz switched on the table lamp, and the mahogany coffee table gleamed in the spill of light.
Once, it had been hers and Jack's. Covered with papers, usually, because most nights he'd prepared building quotes while Roz did the books. But she'd always made him phone the slow payers. "You're a softie," he'd teased her, then bent to kiss her pregnant belly. "Except here."
They were guardians?
"'The seagulls thought Pinky was also a brave adventurer,'" Roz croaked, "'and he was, but only in his imagination.'" Needing order, she gathered loose strands of her limp hair into a tidier ponytail. "'You see, he'd lost the tip of his mousy little finger in an accident with some rusty roofing iron.'"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jack straighten his shoulders. "I'll go see the other kids, then you, Fiona and I need to talk." The grimness was back in his tone.
Without looking up, Roz nodded. "'But Pinky told everyone he'd been in a real house, seen cheese in a mousetrap and coolly decided it was worth losing a finger for.'"
They were guardians!
Somewhere in the fear, a dangerous joy flickered to life.