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A cold September breeze whipped at the fallen leaves near where she stood in front of the mahogany coffin. Roxanne St-Clair's curly long strands of hair were blown into her eyes. Unconsciously, she tucked them behind her ear as she glanced over at the lone man standing across the coffin from her. She turned her attention back to Father Joe, who was completing prayers for the final farewell of George Lafrance.
From his dark well-cut suit to his cold green eyes, this stranger, who resembled George, had to be the estranged grandson, Philippe Lafrance. The grandson no one knew existed until a few days ago.
Father Joe closed his bible and lowered his head in silent prayer. Roxanne took this moment to caress George's mahogany coffin in her own final private farewell. She would forever be grateful and indebted to the compassionate man.
Ten years ago, he'd given her a chance at a better life when he took her in, becoming her last foster parent, her only family.
Father Joe straightened and cleared his throat. "Before we leave, I wish to take this opportunity, on behalf of George's family, to invite everyone back to Rock Heaven, and toast George one last time." He gave a curt nod to the stranger, then to Roxanne.
People nodded, mumbled and began to scatter. Roxanne accepted the odd condolence but from the corner of her eye she watched Philippe linger by his grandfather's coffin. It looked as if he were saying his own farewell.
He raised his head, and their eyes connected for a fleeting moment. Was it sadness she saw in their depths? Quickly, he masked his angry jade eyes with aloofness. He acknowledged her with a curt nod, turned around and left without a backwardglance.
Her best friend, Vanessa, leaned towards her. "You know Roxanne, in all the years I've known George, I never heard him mention a word about a grandson. He talked about losing his son to a heart attack and his wife to breast cancer, but not a word about a grandson. It's kind of weird, don't you think?"
Against her own better judgment, Roxanne wondered as well.
The grandson had inherited George's build, from his broad shoulders and trim waist to chiseled face. The only difference was, George never made her heart flutter with a fleeting eye contact; his grandson did. She tore her gaze from Philippe's retreating back and turned her attention back to Vanessa. "He must have had his reasons."
As if reading Roxanne's mind, Vanessa acknowledged her. "He does resemble George, don't you think?"
"I bet that's the only thing he has in common with George." Roxanne couldn't help but stare at Philippe crossing between the cemetery gates. He reached a blue Toyota, unlocked the driver's door and slipped in.
A police cruiser crawled by, blocking her view of Philippe's car. The police officers openly stared at the remaining mourners.
In a secluded corner of the Rock Heaven restaurant, Philippe brooded. He struggled with the notion that so many people had expressed their sympathy for a man he never knew existed until his death. He checked the room, once again seeking the long dark brown curls and slim figure of Roxanne St-Clair.
He braced himself when he noticed her. She was heading his way her ankle-length black dress accentuating her slim waist.
She switched her cola to her other hand and extended her hand. "I'm Roxanne St-Clair."
Despite noticing anger in her eyes, he shook her hand. He wondered how her soft hands would feel caressing the rest of his body. Philippe mentally shook himself. "Philippe Lafrance, but you already know that." To his annoyance, silently she settled in the seat beside him and toyed with the straw in her drink.
Finally, she shrugged, "I didn't know George had a grandson. Imagine my surprise when his lawyer told us the news a few days ago."
Her comment hit a sore point. He averted his gaze. Past experience taught him raw emotions left a person vulnerable. It was the last thing he wanted this woman to pick up on, his vulnerability. Anger he could deal with, but sympathy infuriated him. He'd already spotted it on her face. If she knew how much he hurt...
Philippe drained the last of his beer. "That makes two of us."
Her eyes widened in shock at the news, only to shrink into small slits. Sharp as a whip, she'd picked up on his sarcasm.
"I have a hard time believing that," said Roxanne harshly.
"This will come as a surprise, but I really don't care what you or anyone else believes." He met her glare with one of his own. "So what was the bastard really like?"
He winced at her sudden sharp intake of breath and instantly regretted the slip. Her eyes darkened to a deep hazel. His words now lay between them like a heavy cloth ready to smother them both.
"Don't you dare speak of George like that. You have no right to criticize him, especially on the day we buried him."
A moment passed, gazes clashing. "What would you call a man who ignored his only grandson all his life?" he demanded, teeth clenched. "I would love to know why he never tried to contact me."
Roxanne's shoulders sagged. She sighed, "I don't know. He must have had his reasons."
"Well, we'll never know now, will we?" He raised his empty glass. "To the man who made time for everyone but his only grandson."
Before he knew it, she reached over and gently touched his forearm. He looked down at her blunt cut and clear fingernails lingering on his coat jacket, willing his body not to respond.
"I'll leave you to your pity party." Roxanne rose and walked away, shaking her head.
"Way to go, Philippe," he muttered to himself, "you can be such an ass. You really know how to impress a lady."
His mind quickly turned to the puzzle his grandfather had become. Could George be the wonderful man all these people were toasting? Why hadn't he found room in his life and in his heart to give his only grandson some of the support and love he so generously dished out to others?
Philippe absently stared into his empty glass. It reflected how his heart felt, empty. He should find Roxanne and apologize for his inappropriate comment. She didn't deserve getting the blunt of his anger.
His debate was cut short by a young woman slipping into Roxanne's vacated seat. The voluptuous blonde had been talking with Roxanne when he'd left the cemetery grounds.
"Hi handsome!" She winked at him. "You must be the mystery grandson no one knew about until two days ago. I'm Vanessa Dixon."
He shook her extended French manicured hand. "Philippe Lafrance," he offered, scanning the room for Roxanne.
"If you're looking for Roxanne you're wasting your time."
"What do you mean? Has she left?"
Vanessa shrugged her short curvy frame. "I'd say she's probably out back, licking her wounds after your talk."
"Licking her wounds?" His social skills were a little rusty, but he hadn't been that harsh with her, had he?
"She mentioned that you'd been a bit harsh."
He rose, intent on finding her, but Vanessa grabbed his arm, applying enough pressure to gain his full attention.
"I'd give her a little breathing room if I were you. She took George's death pretty hard."
"Why is it harder for her in particular?" Philippe dropped back into his seat. He wanted information, and Vanessa seemed willing to provide.
"She found him, dead, in this here kitchen."
Philippe squeezed his eyes shut and mentally kicked himself.
"I take it by your reaction that you didn't know."
He shook his head.
"How come you never came to visit George?"
He had to give it to her, Vanessa didn't beat around the bush. "Listen, we don't know each other. Why would I confess to you?"
"I hear confessions are good for the soul." She leaned back on the stool and smiled confidently. "Not that I've tried it lately.
Philippe squashed the urge to return her tantalizing smile. She was the type of woman who would interest him. No strings. However a particular brunette with plenty of strings and expectations captivated his attention right now. He might as well find out as much as he could about her. "How long have you known Roxanne?"
"Since she came to live with your grandfather." Vanessa eyed him sideways. "Why?"
He ignored her question. "What kind of relationship did she have with my grandfather?"
Her eyes were an open book. He could see her internal debate on how much to reveal. Her glance traveled the room before landing back on him, giving him her full attention once more. "They were very close and good for each other." She sighed. "If you talk to the regulars, you'd discover that when your grandmother died of breast cancer, a part of him died with her. His famous phrase being, she was his better half. Then his son, your father, died a few years later. Everyone feared the heartbreak would kill him."
"Why is that?"
"George loved life. He lived it to the fullest, but after their deaths, he felt he no longer had a reason to live. He never came back to his former self, until he found Roxanne sleeping behind the restaurant's dumpster. Raising her gave him a reason for living again. He, in return, gave her a chance at a better life, away from the streets."
"What about Roxanne's family? Where were they?"
"I don't know," Vanessa rose, "but if you want to know more, you'll have to ask her yourself. You won't get any brownie points with her by grilling her friends."
Walking away, Vanessa threw her last words over her shoulder. "Roxanne will tell you, if and when she's ready. Don't push her."
The voluptuous blond sashayed her way across the room. To his dismay, her sumptuous body left him cold. She exuded the kind of sexuality that always turned him on, but for once in his life, it didn't entice him.
His interest lay fixated on another woman, Roxanne. He knew it the moment their gazes had clashed at the cemetery. He hated not having total control of himself and his surroundings but the feelings this slim woman evoked in him annoyed and scared him. He intended to be rid of it the moment he figured out how to do just that.
Roxanne heaved a sigh of relief when the last mourner left the restaurant. However, she wasn't completely alone. Throughout the entire evening, she'd felt Philippe's gaze on her which provoked spine-tingling shivers each and every time he looked her way.
She leaned her back against the front door, exhausted. She needed to sleep for days on end but first, she had to deal with Philippe.
Philippe still occupied the same stool he had all evening long, at the far end of the bar. During the evening, he'd removed his jacket, dark green tie and undone the top two buttons of his white shirt. He looked handsome, in a roguish kind of way with his straight dark brown hair grazing his shirt collar, tapered waist and broad shoulders. This man spent time in the gym on a regular basis.
She lingered against the doorway, postponing the inevitable. Until he said, "I won't bite," and sipped from his beer mug.
"I'm not scared of you." Her voice sounded weak even to her, but right now, she really didn't care. She wanted to lock up, walk the few blocks to her apartment and cry herself to sleep. "I don't want to argue with you."
Philippe nodded in agreement. "One question before I leave. Can you explain why cops staked out the funeral?"
Roxanne sent him a 'what-do-I-care' look. No one else had mentioned their presence at the cemetery so she figured they hadn't noticed them. It seemed Philippe didn't miss anything. She forced her legs to move towards him. "They weren't staking it out," she said. "They were probably paying their respects. George donated a lot of money to their charities."
Philippe shook his head. "I don't think so. If they were paying their respects, they would have been standing among the mourners instead they remained in their car. Why is that?"
She remained silent.
He gave her a curt nod and changed the subject. "Look, about earlier, I was out of line." At her raised eyebrow he added, "my comments about George were uncalled for." He lifted his hand to hold off her interruption. "I shouldn't have said anything to you, especially today of all days." He looked away. "He was someone important to you, and I'm sorry if my comments hurt you in any way."
He swiveled in her direction and raised a glance to her. "Do you always accept apologies from rude men so quickly or am I in luck?"