From his place in the back of the crowd of mourners, Richard watched Rory intently. Didn’t anyone see how calm she was? Surely someone else could see beyond the black veil. Then again, everyone probably thought that she was mourning that good-for-nothing bastard in the casket. Everyone was expecting her to be pale, drawn, and silent, which she was.
She’s playing her role well, Richard thought, studying the new widow standing before her husband’s casket. Her family and friends flanked her to offer their collective sympathy. Alex stood behind her immediate family, unable to maneuver closer – a fact that Richard found darkly amusing, given Alex’s boast the other day.
She’s stronger then you’ll ever know, Alex. She needs someone who understands her.
It was impossible for him to imagine her missing that bastard. After all, Paul was the one who had given her the black eyes and the bruises. Not him. All he had ever tried to give was his love. I didn’t mean it, Rory. I never wanted to hit you. I was drunk when you called and hurting. I wanted to hurt you the way you hurt me.
Back when they were dating, she’d thrown that night in the woods in his face, crying about love being consensual. That day was the first day that he ever hurt her. The only time he ever hit her. She had just kept fighting with him that day, insisting he was wrong. He hadn’t meant to slap her. It had just happened.
At moments like this, when he was sober and it was daylight, he couldn’t hate her. She hadn’t meant to kill anyone, especially not Julie.
A woman arrived late, distracting Richard from his musings. She took her place across from Rory and next to Paul’s mother. He watched Rory ignore her, concentrating on the casket as it hung suspended over the open grave.
That’s my brave girl. You’re better than them.
A few curious mourners looked from the woman to Rory and back again; he saw a few heads bend together as people exchanged whispers. The small minds irritated him, but her continued composure made him smile. Oh, he knew what Paul’s mother was thinking: that Rory was the guilty one. She was the reason he was dead. Never mind the bruises, the welts, or the mistresses. Richard remembered the other whispers, the ones that contradicted the happy façade Mr. and Mrs. Paul C. DeLuca presented to the world.
I understand you.
She was going to scream. And once she started, she would not stop until every iota of emotion was released. It was a task that would take a good month, she estimated. It was also a stunt that would land her in the mental ward, though the thought had some appeal at the moment.
It was a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare. Nothing else could explain the casket or the people or the tears that soaked everyone’s faces but hers. Isadora stood to her right, proper stalwart support in time of need, while Aunt Sophia stood to her left, holding Rory’s hand and saying nothing of “getting past this” or what a “good man” Paul had been. She said nothing at all, which was infinitely more comforting than the platitudes everyone else was spouting.
More annoying than the well-meant support was Alex, who stood next to one of her cousins. Close but not too close. A proper distance for a family friend.
Time to renew political connections, she thought with distaste when, earlier, she’d watched him sidle up to Isadora and offer his condolences.
At least Cade was there for her, quietly standing behind Aunt Sophie and doing nothing to draw attention to himself. Just tell me what you need, Rory, he’d said quietly as he held her the night Paul died. Just stay with me, was all she had asked. And when she’d finally fallen asleep in his arms, he had carried her to bed and let himself out.
As the priest gave his sermon on love eternal and God’s Will, Rory desperately gripped her Sophia’s hands – not for comfort, but for the strength to continue the charade as she stood before the yawning hole about to swallow her dead husband.
“It’s almost over, Rory,” whispered Sophia as Rory’s grip tightened. “We’ll get through this together and you can start to live again.”
Standing there, watching the casket, and hearing the priest’s words, Rory felt as if fine cracks were racing along her body, much like a piece of fine china at the moment of impact, just before it explodes into tiny fragments. The wall she’d erected within was weakening, and once it collapsed, every emotion she refused to feel would bury her.
Tell me he’s dead. Tell me he’s dead, please God. Tell me he’s dead and I’m not.
Still angry and still sore from his final attempt to break her before walking out the door , Rory forced herself to stand up straighter. She was thankful for the clouds and the chilly wind that promised rain; otherwise, the black dress she wore would be hell. Between the long sleeves, hat, and veil she felt as if she were the one being buried.
In a sense she was. Her old life was being buried. Everyone thought her heart was in that box. She knew that it wasn’t, but the act was necessary. Dorothy DeLuca, with her glares and snide remarks had spent years picking at Rory’s marriage, insisting that the young bride didn’t love her son as she should. Rory’s pride demanded this final show. It didn’t matter that Dorothy was right. She would never give the old bat the satisfaction.
I’m not dead, Rory reminded herself. But Paul is.
How could I have been so stupid? He’d nearly killed her that day in the kitchen, slamming her into the door a dozen times before throwing her across the kitchen and into the table. When he finished, she’d been allowed to fall to the floor. Then, as was his habit, he’d left to spend time with his mistress.
I’m not dead.
Trying to distract herself, she passed her eyes over the crowd again. His family. Hers. Friends. Business associates. Richard.
Her chest tightened, and she wondered if she were losing her mind.
He stared at her, a look of tenderness on his face.
This isn’t real. This can’t be real. Hysterical laughter welled up within her and she began to shake. Her ex-boyfriend was at her husband’s funeral. What does he want, another shot at it? Maybe I can marry him next! Let him smack me around this time. Oh God, please God, get me out of here.
“Rory, you okay?” Cade asked. She felt his hand on her shoulder and wondered if she’d break then and there.
She couldn’t breathe. The cracks deepened. Her mind taunted her, treating her to vivid images of her brother and father’s final minutes – not Paul’s.
The driver hadn’t expected the ice. He’d been in a hurry, rushing home for whatever reason and not paying attention. When he hit the icy patch, his car became a rocket, crossing the median and slamming into her father’s car.
Two accidents now.
It looks like he tried to stop.
Was that Paul or the driver? No. It was both.
He tried to stop. He couldn’t. They died.
Was that Paul or that other driver?
He tried to stop, ma’am.
Worse, the news accounts. Thomas Haverly and his son Robert died today when the driver of another car hit ice and lost control. Thomas, aged fifty-one, died en route to the hospital. Robert, only seventeen, died upon impact. The youngest Haverly, ten-year-old Aurora, survived… Paul DeLuca died today in a one-car accident. It’s believed that a deer ran out in front of him, causing him to swerve and flip his SUV. He died instantly. He is survived by his wife Aurora…
Something deep and wordless within made her back away from the grave.
It didn’t matter that this was Paul’s burial and not her father’s and brother’s. She had to get away or else be swallowed right along with Paul, and she’d tumble into oblivion and be forgotten just as he had wanted.
She stepped backward, and felt Cade’s hand on her waist.
A scream gathered in her throat and she pressed her fists to her mouth, trapping it inside. No, no, no… this isn’t real… not again… she felt her teeth sinking into her skin and could taste the faint saltiness of her own blood. This is Paul. It’s Paul. The bastard who cheated on me and beat me and hated me for being a success. Paul.
But it was Robert that Rory saw, twisting as if to escape. The look of horror on his face, the one that told her that he knew he would die and Rory would not. Robert!
Her scream escaped as a moan, and she would have doubled over but for Cade, who held her and forced her to stand even as her knees gave out. Had it not been for him, she would have tumbled into the grave with her husband. Somewhere Sophia’s voice broke through the fog, and she could hear her calling her name. The taste of blood was stronger now, and someone was pulling her hands away from her mouth.
“Stop it, you’re hurting yourself,” Isadora commanded. “Aurora, stop it!”
Rory looked at her hands, then at the crowd of mourners. Everyone was staring at her. Richard was staring at her.
Third time’s a charm, she thought hysterically. Maybe you can kill me this time.
She glanced up at Cade and opened her mouth to say his name, but no sound came out.
Her knees buckled.