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It was too beautiful a day to bury Dylan Renault.
Nothing but blue skies hung overhead with the sun blazing down on Loomis Cemetery. Odd for a February in south Louisiana. Where were the bolts of lightning and rolling thunder? Shouldn't the weather reflect the gloominess of the townsfolk? Not even a fog or mist to mar the beautiful Monday morning.
Ava stared at her brother's polished coffin, trying to concentrate on the Scripture being read by Reverend Harmon. She fought back the burning tears and swallowed past the lump caught in her throat.
Dylan lay in that cold, lifeless box in front of her. He would never again tug her hair or shoot her his lopsided grin. Ava's stomach roiled.
Whispers rose from the row behind her.
"Some say Earl wasn't really Sarah's father, and Dylan knew who was. And whoever he is, he's the one who shot Dylan. Probably because he knew the truth."
A different woman's voice responded. "No, I think Dylan's really that girl's father. He and Leah had a torrid love affair that went bad and she got pregnant. That's why she up and quit working for him. That's probably why she ran off three weeks ago, too."
Bile searing the back of her throat, Ava stiffened her spine and turned her head slightly to see who'd said such an outlandish thingat the funeral of all places, too. Who'd do something so tacky?
Micheline Pershing, rumor queen of St. Tammany parish, stared back at Ava with a snooty air.
She didn't even have the decency to blush and look away when Ava stabbed her with a vicious glare. No, she met the glare head-on, even having the nerve to give Ava a curt nod in response.
Disgust inched up Ava's spine as she jerked to face the casket again and choked back more tears. Micheline was despicable. Dylan wasn't even in the ground yet, and the woman already spread lies. Not that the whole town wasn't rumbling with rumors and speculation.
Ava sighed. Who could blame them, really? Dylan had been shot in the back and left for dead in the overgrown backyard of Renault Hall, the abandoned mansion of Ava and Dylan's grandfather. Her brother's last words were what fed the gossipmongers
What could he mean? The only Sarah in Loomis was little Sarah Farley, daughter of the missing Leah Farley and deceased Earl Farley. What had Dylan been trying to relay? Nothing made sense, but it was hard to deny the little girl had haunting, green almond-shaped eyes, a trademark of the Renault family. Ava had racked her brain trying to figure out what her brother's dying words meant. She was as clueless as everyone else in town. The difference was she wouldn't give in to conjecture.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
" Reverend Harmon's words were drowned out by Charla Renault's sobbing.
Ava patted her mother's shoulder, but her mind continued to spin. Charla had retired to her suites as soon as she'd been told about Dylan's murder, only venturing out today to attend the funeral. But to display her grief so publicly? It wasn't like Charla Renault, not at all. Hadn't she drilled into Ava over and over
Renaults don't show emotion, Ava. We're above that.
"Unto Him we lift Dylan
Ava's heart thudded at Reverend Harmon's words, recalling the last time she'd heard him utter them. Her father's funeral. The kind, loving man who'd always done what he felt was best for his family
his life taken in that horrible accident. An unfortunate accident, an untimely death that left Ava with a bitter, resentful mother to take care of. Although, Charla Renault hadn' t taken long to adjust to being in a wheelchair. She'd soon been back to her usual controlling self, wreaking havoc in her children's lives.
Ava let her gaze fall on the elaborate coffin poised over the open grave in the Renault plot. Her stomach knotted as she blinked furiously.
She. Would. Not. Give. These. People. The. Satisfaction. Of. Seeing. Her. Cry.
Especially not Micheline Pershing and her cohort.
Morbid curiosity had been the only reason the good folk of Loomis had shown up at the funeral. That, or fear of disappointing Charla, who held a lot of power in the little town. They all thought Dylan had been nothing more than a spoiled playboy. They didn't know the sensitive brother she'd grown up with. The one who'd endured their mother's unfounded rages and protected Ava by sneaking them out of the house when Charla would tear into her husband. The teenager who'd kept Charla away from Ava most of her formative years.
Ava ached for his protection from the rumor mill today.
A loud moan ground out beside her. Her mother had a death grip on that poor dog, Rhett, who endured the unfamiliar hold. Charla hunched over in her wheelchair and moaned as if she'd been stabbed.
Poor choice of words. Ava licked her lips.
Again, whispers rose from the row behind her.
"Can you believe she's daring to show emotion?"
"I can't believe she even has emotions," Micheline replied. "I didn't think people with ice running through their veins had any feelings."
Ava narrowed her eyes and tossed a frown over her shoulder. The rudeness of people never ceased to amaze her. Especially here
barraging against her grief.
Charla let out another sob. Ava wanted to cry all the more. Never before had the matriarch of the Renault family deigned to allow anyone outside the family see even the slightest sign of weakness, perceived or real. Even when she was recovering from the auto accident, she put on a strong front, going into work everyday. Why was she giving the locals food for fodder now? Grief aside, couldn't she hear Micheline and her followers whispering about the family? Guessing about the reasons why someone would take Dylan's life?
Murdered. Ava couldn't imagine someone hating Dylan enough to kill him. Shot in the back, like some mangy cur. Sure, he'd broken a lot of hearts over the years, but she didn't think there had ever been a relationship so serious that it could've mustered enough feelings of regret or revenge to murder her brother in cold blood. As far as she knew in the business world, Dylan was a fair player. Maybe it was time she looked into the family business. Maybe Dylan had been a different kind of executive than she thought. Over the last few weeks, Dylan had changed. It seemed like he was finally growing up and becoming the man their father would've been proud of.
Even though Sheriff Bradford Reed had recently all but accused him of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Angelina Loring, who had been found dead in a swamp on the outskirts of Loomisjust after Leah Farley had gone missing.
Now Dylan had been murdered, his promising character cut down just as he was coming into his own. It was unfair, just like so many things in life. What in the world was happening to the quiet town of Loomis? Ava shuddered and shook her head.
"The peace of the Lord be with you." Reverend Harmon approached the front row and bent to take Charla's hands in his own. "God will comfort you in this time of loss."
It was as if Charla didn't even hear his words. Her tear-stained face focused on the coffin, her eyes red and glassy.
Ava swallowed, silently praying for the Holy Spirit to wrap her in peace and comfort. Why, God? Why take Dylan from me, too? Wasn't Daddy enough?
People stood and milled about, whispering in small groups. Screams rose in Ava, begging to be released. How could they just stand around so casually, gossiping or discussing the latest episode of their favorite sitcom? Her brother was dead
gone. He left behind a mystery no one had figured out. Sarah's father
Such cryptic words. It just wasn't like Dylan, so what he'd been trying to say had to be vitally important. Critically so.
Ava's friend and child psychologist, Jocelyn Gold, wrapped her in a hug. "I'm so sorry." She squeezed her before releasing her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm holding my own." Ava glanced at the tall, handsome man hovering over Jocelyn's shoulder.
Sam Pierce. FBI.
Ava let out a slow breath, struggling to recall the weeks before Dylan's murder. The FBI had been called in on Leah Farley's case and worked the attempted kidnapping, but they'd only assisted Sheriff Reed with the murder of Angelina Loring. Had Sam also believed Dylan guilty as well, or had he just been doing his job?
Sam offered his hand. "I'm truly sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." He couldn't be all bad. Not if Jocelyn was in love with him, and by all appearances, Jocelyn was starry-eyed over him. The man had a job to do and had done it, that was all. She widened her smile. "I appreciate y'all coming."
Jocelyn gave her another hug. "Call me if you need anything." She looped her arm through Sam's and headed toward the line of parked cars.
A few brave souls from her mother's generation approached Charla, offering weak sentiments of comfort. Charla accepted their gestures amid tears and clinging to her trembling dog. Ava shifted away. How sad that her mother really had no one to confide in, talk with, share her grief with. For the first time, pity for Charla rose within Ava. Her mother had no friends or confidants. Only Bosworth, the son of Charla's father's driver, who'd served Charla since she was a young woman. He'd stayed with the family through Charla's marriage, and remained her faithful servant today.
"Ava." The voice reached right into her heart and pierced it.
She spun to face Maximilion Pershing. "Max." Her gasp caught in her throat as her pulse raced.
"I'm so sorry." His eyes were the color of hot cocoa and just as soothing. He laid a steady hand on her shoulder. "I know this sounds so lame, but if there's anything I can do for you
" He paused, swallowed hard, then continued, "I hope you know I'll do whatever I can to help you."
Of all the people who offered condolences, Max meant the most to her because he knew the pain she felt. He knew her, and he understood. And maybe, just maybe, he still cared. He'd loved her once. Could he again, despite the history between them? Ava blinked back the tears threatening to spill. "Th-thank you."
He leaned closer and pulled her into his arms, hugging her gently, yet firmly.
Her heart pounded as if she'd just done twenty laps in an Olympic-size pool. Ava allowed herself to melt into his embrace. The distinct smell of his familiar cologne wafted around her. It felt so good for Max to hold her. Then again, it always had.
"I mean it. I'm here for you." His words were a caress against her ear.
For just a moment, time stood still and she was transported back to the day she'd been uprooted from her junior year of high school to go to boarding school, and she'd had to tell Max goodbye.
Wailing shattered the memory.
Ava withdrew from Max and spun around. Her mother caught sight of her. For a moment, Charla's grief disappeared, replaced with the familiar frown of disapproval. "Avvvvv-vaaaaaaaaaa!"
Only Charla Renault could make a two-syllable word draw out to ten. And in front of everyone, too.
Tossing a please-forgive-me look at Max, she mouthed "I'll call you" and rushed to her mother. Poor Rhett, the little Jack Russell terrier that never left Charla's side, quivered and whined.
She took her mother's hand and squeezed, nodding to Bosworth hovering on the edge of the crowd. Ava gave the coffin a final glance. Her stomach twisted as her heart ached to shriek louder than Charla.
She turned and guided her mother's wheelchair toward the waiting limo.
Although he hadn't known it at the time, Max Pershing had given his heart to Ava Renault years ago. Fifteen years ago, to be precise. Now he knew she still had it.
Last month, fate had thrown the two of them together again when the Loomis governing body asked him to serve on the Mother's Day pageant committee, representing the Pershing family. He'd had no choicehis mother would've been furious had he declined, so he accepted. Not knowing that his co-chair would be from the other prominent family in the small town Ava Renault.
Holding her in his arms just now had confirmed it. No other woman had ever made his heart leap as Ava did.
She helped her mother into the car, gave him a final sad smile from across the cemetery, then disappeared behind the tinted glass. The Renault driver, Bosworth, shut the back door before slipping behind the steering wheel.
Every muscle in his body tensed to run after her. To hold her again. To try to smooth some of the pain etched across her face.
"Surprised to see you here." Reverend Harmon offered his hand.
Max shook hands with the man. "It's a shame what happened with Dylan. Of course, I wanted to be here for the family."
Reverend Harmon's bushy brows shot up. "The family, or Ava in particular?"
Busted. "Well, it's no secret there's no love lost between my mother and Charla, that's for sure."
"But between you and Ava?"
Reverend Harmon knew their historyknew how they'd been falling in love back in high school, knew how Charla Renault had been unable to accept such an idea and had sent Ava away to boarding school, knew how Charla had brought Ava back to attend the local university when she'd learned Max had been accepted at Louisiana State University. Everyone who knew the story seemed as bewildered as Max over why, when he returned from college, Ava had avoided Max like the plague. Too much parental influence, or had her feelings toward Max changed?
"That's ancient history."
One of the cemetery workers approached. "Reverend Harmon, most everyone has left. Is it okay to lower the casket now?"
The man's demeanor changed in an instant. "Of course." He nodded to Max. "I'm praying for you."
How was he supposed to respond to that? He didn't want anyone to pray for him. He'd learned years ago that God wasn't listening. He hadn't listened to Max's pleas to bring Ava home and then had turned a deaf ear to Max's requests to save his cousin, Michael Pershing, from pancreatic cancer at such a young age. But Max couldn't fault Harmon for his faith. Everyone knew Reverend Harmon was a good man, had a good heart.
Max stood silently as the reverend said a final prayer over the casket containing Dylan Renault, then the casket was lowered into the grave. Max's gut knotted.
People weren't supposed to die so young. And murdered! In Loomis. The third one in a month. Plus, Leah Farley was still missing, although the general consensus was that she was dead as well.
The town fed on gossip and suppositions. FBI agents and investigators had barraged Loomis and set up base in the downtown area. Just two weeks ago, they'd focused on Dylan Renault as a suspect in Angelina Loring's death. Now he'd been shot and killed. What was the city coming to?