He had only gone to the funeral for one reason to make sure his father was dead. Mitch Wilder waited in his rented Mercedes across the street from Wharton’s Funeral Home and watched the people fight the blustery wind to go inside. What a hell of a day for a funeral. He took stock of who showed up for his old man’s service. He certainly didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be...home.
It had taken him twice as long to drive from Hamilton than usual. Wind blowing snow across the highway slowed traffic significantly. But by the time he’d gotten to Highway 15 and driven into Port Shetland the wind had eased somewhat.
Mitch picked up the single red rose on the seat beside him and held it up to his nose. With eyes closed, he inhaled the sweet fragrance and brought the image of his mother to his mind. Her arthritic hands were what he saw first, disjointed fingers curving over her thumbs. He could hear her labored breathing as she pushed her heavy body out of a chair. Her knees would crack.
A tear dampened his cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. Mitch remembered the last time he was inside this funeral home. It had been fifteen years ago when his mother died. Then: a week after his mother’s funeral, he’d been drinking---which gave him courage---and walked up to his old man. “So, you going to move in with Stella?”
Len took a step back. “How do you know about Stella?”
Mitch glowered. “I’ve known about your mistress for years, Dad.”
Len eyed Mitch for a few heartbeats before he said, “I hope you don’t hate me, son. I’m going to move in with her.”
Mitch’s eyes were cold as he raised his chin...then hit his father. It had taken his old man by surprise. After he staggered backward Len wiped the blood from his nose. “That’s the last time you hit me, Mitch. The next time you’ll be written out of my will for good.”
“I don’t want your damn money.” Mitch held his clenched hands at his sides.
“Watch your step, Mitch.” His father glared at him. “I can take the company away from you.”
“You were the one who kept begging me to work for you.”
Len nodded. “And I’ll make sure you don’t inherit it too. Maybe...”
“Maybe what?” Mitch finished his whiskey and set the glass down.
Len took several breaths then said, “Maybe I’ll leave it to your brother.”
“What?” Mitch blinked several times. “What brother?”
“You have a brother, Mitch. His name is Tom.”
Mitch clenched his hands again, then thinking better of it, he let them hang loose at his sides. “Well, I don’t want anything to do with your bastard.”
Len held onto Mitch’s sleeve, his eyes glistening. “I’m sorry, son. But your mother couldn’t... I needed...”
Mitch stormed out of the house and despite his father’s attempts to reconcile throughout the years, Mitch kept them from getting close. Even as they worked together. After that day, every time Mitch had a few drinks they’d end up in an intense argument. More than once Nora’s husband, Joe stepped in between them. Then Mitch and Len would come to an uneasy truce until the next time Mitch had a few too many.
Mitch sighed as he opened his eyes. The rose in his hand didn’t seem to be as bright as it was when he bought it that morning. He twirled it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger. The idea was to place it on his mother’s grave after the service. But as a gust of wind shook the car and made him shiver, he decided not to go out to the cemetery. “This stupid little flower would just blow away, anyway.” Scowling, Mitch whipped the rose against the back of the seat beside him. Three petals flew off. “Sorry, Mom.”
Mitch set the rose back on the seat. A quick glance at his watch told him he couldn’t delay this any longer. He checked his image in the rear-view mirror and straightened his tie. After a deep sigh, Mitch forced himself to open the car door.
He stepped into the lobby of the funeral home. JT Wharton, the owner’s son directed him to the room on the left. To get his bearings and to delay this for as long as possible, Mitch picked up one of the announcements and read it. In Loving Memory, it said. He scoffed. Maybe in Nora’s loving memory but not his. Leonard J. Wilder passed away on March 25, 1967. Mitch stuffed it into his pocket before he took off his coat, hanging it up on the rack where dozens of others mingled with his tailored one. It surprised Mitch to see so many people there, he didn’t think his father was very well liked. He forced himself to walk through the double doors and down the aisle, between the two rows of seats, toward the front.
Claire Lester sat in her seat wondering if Mitch would show up today. It was late; the service was about to start. She thought about four years ago when her mother died, and how disappointed she was that Mitch hadn’t been there. He had been close to her mother. Maggie was the nurse who attended his mother with her arthritis and swollen knees.
Even at a very young age, Claire had a crush on Mitch. She used to follow him around the house, so he’d pay attention to her. Mitch was a charmer. Maggie could sit for hours and watch him eat or play, or tease Claire and his sister, Nora. And he’d grin up at her as if he knew how cute he was. Then he’d say something about his mother’s crooked hands and the tears would flow. Maggie would give him a hug and rub his back. Not that she ignored Nora. She didn’t. But Claire knew that Mitch had been her favorite of the two. And as they grew older, Mitch would give Maggie flowers and never forgot her birthday. “He’s such a nice boy,” she’d say.
Mitch always stopped in to see Maggie after he grew up. He’d peck her on the cheek, and she’d blush. Then Claire’s father would let out a harrumph and say, “He’s just schmoozing with you like he does with all the pretty girls.”
But Maggie didn’t care and told Bud he was jealous. Bud would shake his head and walk away. He never argued with Maggie. He’d only argue with Claire in the way Mitch treated her.
Mitch walked past the row she sat in. Claire must have sucked in her breath because her father put his hand on her lap. She didn’t need to look at him, she knew what she’d see: his brow would be deeply creased, eyes dark and narrowed, his face flushed and mottled. His “Mitch” look.
Yet, she knew even then where she’d be that night. Whenever Mitch Wilder was in town, she was his. It didn’t matter if she was dating anyone else; that man was supposed to step aside. Any man interested in her soon found out who owned her when Mitch came home. She suspected that he threatened them. Claire bit her bottom lip as she watched him walk up to his sister and knew her current boyfriend was next in line. She wondered if Stan knew Mitch had come home and if she could head off a fistfight.
Mitch stood beside Nora and looked down at the casket. Claire felt the wetness between her thighs and the heart palpitations. Besides being very well hung, Mitch knew how to please her like no one else could. She squirmed in her seat at the thought. Why did Mitch always do that to her?
“Sweetheart,” her father whispered in her ear, “stay at my place tonight. You don’t have to be with him, you know?” He patted her lap. “You’re with Stan now. Remember it.”
“I know,” she said as she watched Mitch. The mention of Stan made her feel guilty. What about Stan? She was very fond of him. He was easy to talk to; they liked the same kind of music. Stan was gentle and considerate.
But she had been in love with Mitch since high school. They’d date, have a fight, he’d take off. Sometimes for years at a time. Then when Claire thought she’d gotten over him, she’d start dating someone else only to have Mitch show up, sending her into a whirlwind. In the last five years she hadn’t dated at all until she started seeing Stan. And now Mitch was back, and her heart ached for him.
Mitch stood an even six feet, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, like a football player. In her mind, Claire could feel his rippled abs and long lean legs around her. He was what women dreamed about. She knew too that Mitch would screw around on her.
But she couldn’t help what the heart wanted. And as Mitch stood up front, Claire found herself pining for him.
Mitch heard someone whisper as he walked up to the casket. “There he is, he did come home after all.” He looked neither left nor right but kept a steady gaze on his sister until he stopped beside her. “I’m sorry, Nora,” he told her as he gave her a hug. “For you, I’m sorry.”
“Oh Mitch, I’m so glad you’re here.” Nora lifted her face up so he could give her a kiss on the cheek. He took her hand and nodded over his sister’s head at her husband. Joe returned the nod and then looked back down at the casket. They were probably the only two people glad to see Mitch there.
He forced himself to follow Joe’s gaze and looked down at the waxen man who lay before him. Len’s face was transparent, with purple-black spots that looked like bruises. Snakelike blue veins ran along the tops of his hands. He wore a navy suit Mitch had never before seen. A pair of glasses sat on his face. There was no wedding ring or any jewelry. His father looked old and gray, much older than his seventy-six years. Mitch had an urge to wipe a strand of white hair from his forehead. Not out of sentiment, but because it didn’t belong there. Len looked like he was grinning. Even in death, his father looked arrogant. There would be no tears, not from Mitch. He didn’t harbor remorse or guilt. Whatever he had thrown at his old man throughout the years, Mitch thought he deserved it.
You don’t preach to us about your high morals only to screw around on your wife! That was the hatchet. He couldn’t let go of it. His father had expected him to welcome his brother, Tom. Not going to happen. Tom can go to hell. There he was, in the corner. Mitch glared at his half-brother. Tom just sat there with his head down and wouldn’t even look him in the eyes.
After Joe led them to their seats, the minister started them in prayer. Mitch didn’t believe in prayers. Instead, he looked past Nora and Joe to their son, Todd. He had begun to fill out and Mitch bet the seventeen-year-old had plenty of girls after him. Todd looked just like his mother with dark hair, high cheekbones, and a pouty mouth. The last time he saw his nephew was four years ago. That was how long it had been since he was home. Even then Mitch only stayed for a couple of weeks, enough time to turn this town upside down before he left again.
Mitch still hadn’t shed a tear as he looked over at the casket during the third prayer and wondered what his father had done during the last four years. He knew Nora had forgiven Len a long time ago. Daddy’s little girl. Mitch could picture Len pushing her on the swing when she was little. Higher, Daddy. Higher. And Len would smile and push harder. Then he’d turn to Mitch and say, “Put that frog down. You aren’t going to scare her with it.” Nora even had a relationship with Tom, sort of---they exchanged Christmas cards. He didn’t though. Even after all these years, he blamed Tom for taking his father away from him. And Mitch blamed his father for the man he himself turned out to be.
He should have known that Mitch would make a scene, coming in at the last minute, holding up the service. Mitch was probably happy when Nora told him that their father died of heart failure.
Two years ago, a car slid across an intersection on the ice, running right into Tom’s mother, killing her instantly. Nora had shown up at her funeral, but not Mitch.
Tom Fleming sat quietly in the front row by the wall, his first time in this funeral home. He watched his older brother with a sense of keenness he had perfected; blend into the background, jump out when you want to be noticed. Tom watched and schemed.
He knew Mitch wouldn’t acknowledge him; he never did. After all, he was a bastard, wasn’t he, born from Len’s mistress, a low-life not worth consideration? It wasn’t his fault Dad decided to live with her after Mitch’s mother died. But Tom had issues too. No one knew he was also on the outs with their old man, and this was the first time he’d seen him since his mother’s accident. If it weren’t for Nora and Joe, he probably wouldn’t be there. He’d probably still be in Windsor, suffering the loss of his father by himself.
He heard someone whisper behind him. “Who is that guy?” Tom wanted to turn around and tell them, just to see the shock on their faces. Instead, he hung his head, not ready to reveal his identity yet. Very few people knew about him because he stayed in Windsor, seldom visiting his half-brother and sister. He had only seen them a few times in his thirty-five years. As far as Mitch was concerned, he didn’t exist.
Tom sat beside his nephew, Todd, and squeezed his hand to comfort him. Todd’s eyes were full of tears as he glanced at Tom then back over at the casket. Tom looked over Todd’s head at his brother-in-law. Big Joe filled a doorframe in nicely. In the few times he’d seen Joe, Tom knew that his bulk alone demanded respect from anyone he came across. Not because Joe was fat, but because he was all muscle. Joe was six-foot-four and took no guff from anyone. Yet, Tom felt safe when Joe was around. Nora told him that, ever since he was a teen, Joe had been a bodybuilder and was wrestling champion for his high school three years in a row. Tom also knew that Big Joe had eyes for only one woman, his wife, Nora.
Compared to Joe, Nora looked tiny. And Tom was the male image of his sister. It would be hard not to see the family resemblance. Maybe Mitch was the bastard, not him. Mitch had blond hair and hazel eyes. He and Nora both had dark hair and blue eyes. But Mitch was a Wilder all right. He resembled their grandfather more closely than the rest of them did. Tom and Nora took after their Great-Grandmother. Nora had shown him photos.
Tom never knew any of his grandparents. They were all gone by the time Leonard owned up to his responsibility. He never married Tom’s mother, though. But Tom knew that Len had loved her deeply. They were always smiling at each other, kissing and touching. At one time Tom had a good relationship with his father and it made Mitch jealous. Tom thought of the day Len brought the three of them together for the first time. Mitch was conceited even then, glaring at him whenever their father’s back was turned.
It had been close to Nora’s birthday. She just turned twenty-three. Tom bought her a little gift and hoped to at least win her over. She opened the tiny box and lifted out the gold chain he’d given her. She thanked him with a kiss on the cheek. Mitch was twenty-five at the time, Tom had been twenty-one.
Joe Breckenridge stayed beside his wife, Nora, after the ceremony and handed her another tissue. The casket was now closed, and he heard Todd sniffle. He encircled his son in his muscle-bound arms, holding his family close. After a few minutes, Mitch stood up beside them and then the rest of the congregation did. It was if they’d waited until the family signaled that they could go home.
Joe saw the sunlight filter through the two stained-glass windows, one on each side of the casket. The last time he was there was four years ago when they buried Claire’s mother. The room looked the same as it did then, dark wainscoting on the bottom portion of the walls with a pale yellow on the rest. It reminded Joe of puke. This wasn’t a cheery place even with the sunlight that shone onto the dark polished floor. Why do these places have to be so drab? He looked around at the walls and noticed there were very few pictures. They should put more in here, cheery ones. Instead of religious sayings in frames or pictures of Jesus. He thought there should be ones with flowers or a country scene, something to make people reflect, or to make them smile.
Someone poked Joe in the back and he turned to see Tom. “I’m going back to the house and lie down,” Tom told him. He watched Tom make his way along the side wall toward the entrance. Too bad Tom didn’t have the guts to face his big brother. He knew of the animosity between Tom and Mitch and how hard Nora tried to bring her brothers together. Joe told her a long time ago to forget it; it wasn’t about to happen unless someone hit Mitch over the head to knock some sense into him. Joe squinted as Tom looked back into the crowd several times then snuck out.
Joe shook hands with various people and accepted many condolences before the crowd filtered out of the room. Some of them would go straight over to his place for a luncheon. He couldn’t wait to get home and down a beer, except his wife had told him not to drink booze while the churchgoing snobs were still there.
Mitch suddenly straightened beside him and Mitch’s face softened. Claire had walked up to them with tears in her eyes. Her father, Bud, brushed past Mitch and took Joe’s hand. Joe returned the handshake . Bud said something to him, but Joe didn’t hear. Even from where he stood, he felt the sexual tension between Mitch and Claire.
Claire leaned into him after everyone started to filter out of the building. Mitch held her in his arms when he wrapped them around her and kissed her lips. He heard the soft moan that came from deep down in her throat. Her body fit into his as if she’d been made just for him. He didn’t want to let her go. But he did and stepped back to admire her. To him she was goddamn gorgeous. Even after all these years, she still had “that” effect on him.
He wasn’t given time to talk to her, to tell her he wanted her, still loved her. Bud took her by the arm and led her out of the building. Mitch had seen the angry, distrustful glances her father gave him, but he’d ignored them, as usual. He didn’t care what her old man thought of him. She was his and he wanted her.
He turned after Claire was out of sight, only to face Julie Marshall. He almost gagged. She stepped in for a kiss, but he backed up and shook her hand instead. He walked away and joined a group of men. Luckily, she didn’t follow him. Mitch glanced back to see her husband, Bob, watching him. He went up to Bob and offered his hand only to have Bob ignore it. Mitch just stood there and watched as Bob literally pushed his wife out the door.
He turned around to ask Joe if he could explain it. Joe’s arm was around Nora as he led her toward the entrance. Todd followed his parents. He stopped in front of Mitch, looking dazed. Mitch gave his nephew a hug. Without a word, Todd stepped back, nodded, then continued after his parents.
And since the wind had eased off, and the day looked brighter through those stained-glass windows, Mitch went out to the cemetery after all, for just a few minutes.
The mourners didn’t go out to the cemetery because there was no burial today. In this weather, it was just as well. Leonard Wilder would be cremated tomorrow anyway. Only the immediate family would be there to pick up the ashes.
After the service, Claire drove her father home and helped him up the front steps. While Bud opened the door, she reached in and took the mail out of his box.
“Don’t go over there, Claire,” he told her while he took off his coat. “Mitch doesn’t own you; you know?”
“I know, Dad. But I have to help Nora and give her support. She is my best friend, after all.” She took his coat from him and hung it up in the closet. By the time she turned around his tie and suit coat were off, and he had draped them over a chair.
He reached for his sweater and pushed his arms through the sleeves. “Had to get out of that monkey suit,” he said, and then looked around for his slippers. “Will you pour me a brandy?”
Claire went over to the liquor cabinet and poured two glasses. Her glass held just enough to ease her dry throat and her nerves. She downed it in one gulp. After she handed her father his drink, she picked up the mail from the hall table and brought it into him. “Here’s your paper, Dad. I better get going.” She followed his gaze to the picture on a side table. It was one of her, and her two best friends, lifelong friends, Nora and Kathy. Her father always called all three of them his girls. Kathy Hoffman had been dead for twelve years.
“You should have married Joe,” Bud said as he shook his head. “He’s the best one of the bunch.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “I know, Dad. But we were only seventeen, and we grew apart.”
Bud let out a loud sigh. “Well, at least one of my girls caught him.” He reached up and clutched her coat sleeve. “I just want you to be happy, Princess.”
Claire kissed his cheek. “I know, Dad.” She stood back and saw his eyes glisten. Len Wilder had been his best friend. “You going to be all right?”
“I’m fine,” he sniffled. “You go.” He turned her around to face the door.
As Claire drove over to Nora’s she wiped the tears from her cheeks. She knew her father would be crying now. He only let out his real emotions in private, or in front of her. There would be no way in hell he’d let Mitch Wilder know just how much he’d miss Len.
Claire took longer than necessary to hang up her coat when she arrived at Nora’s. She still didn’t know what she should do about Stan. What if she let Stan go only to have Mitch walk out on her, again? Why was she in love with a man who’d only break her heart in a few months? Or had he finally changed and would stay with her forever this time?
At the funeral home earlier, she had known Mitch had come home, just by the reaction of the woman in the seat in front of her. The looks of longing and lusty stares followed that man everywhere he went. Claire should be used to it by now. Mitch Wilder was gorgeous. He had it all, a ruggedly handsome face, golden wavy locks of hair and deep hazel eyes. Eyes that mesmerized you if you dared to look into them. She stood, halfway in the closet and took several deep breaths, wondering how long it would take Mitch to claim her this time.
Joe was leaning against his kitchen counter with a coffee in his hand, wishing it was a bottle of beer instead or a good shot of something. The church ladies had prepared a light luncheon even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Joe watched his friends and neighbors line up for the food. He didn’t take anything though; he didn’t think his stomach would handle it. His best friend gave him a quick hug after he kissed Nora. Bob Marshall was the closest thing Joe had to a brother. They were distant cousins from a far-off branch on his father’s side.
Joe refilled his coffee then sauntered into the living room. Bob stood beside him with a beer. Joe eyed the bottle as Bob took a swig. Joe looked down at his coffee, then at the bottle of beer. He heard Nora talking, then sipped on his coffee.
Minutes later, Mitch walked up to the two of them and shook hands with Bob. Joe saw the way he warily watched Bob’s wife, and rightly so. She was the only female Joe knew who Mitch tried his hardest to avoid. Julie, on the other hand, chased Mitch with a brazen audacity that made Bob look like a fool. Only minutes before she was running her hand up and down Mitch’s arm, leaning into him, smiling seductively at him. Why Bob put up with it, Joe didn’t know, but he saw the hesitation in his friend before he took Mitch’s hand. Bob gave a slight nod and then moved on.
Mitch looked after him in surprise. “What’s gotten into him?”
“He thinks---” Doctor Claire Lester walked into the room and stopped to talk to Nora. Joe heard an intake of breath from Mitch. Oh no, here we go, again.
Mitch leaned in closer. “She dating anybody?”
Mitch’s left eyebrow rose. “Stan Cleary? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“He’s the town’s cop now.”
Mitch gave the room a quick glance. “I don’t see him.”
“He’s probably on duty. They’ve been going out for about a year.”
“Well,” Mitch said with a know-it-all grin. “That isn’t going to last long.”
Tom stood at the top of the stairs, listening to the muted conversations below. He didn’t lie down like he told Joe he would. He’d heard his brother’s ridicule when Nora told Mitch where he was. Mitch didn’t bother to go look for him to console his little brother. Not that Tom expected him to. Instead, Mitch was probably glad that he wasn’t there to take all the attention away from him.
Nora had come upstairs, though and hugged him. “Do you need anything, Tom, Aspirin? I’ll tell everyone you’re too upset.”
“I’m fine.” He was tired of her hovering over him every time he visited her. “I’ll be down in a bit.” It was another reason why he’d stayed away. Nora was just too suffocating.
Tom couldn’t wait to see the looks on all their faces. Now that Claire was finally there, he could go down. He was sure she didn’t see him at the funeral home. Tom didn’t want her to until he was ready. He waited and listened for a few more minutes. A snicker escaped his lips, which he tried hard to suppress. Wait until they found out what he did to his big brother. As far as Tom was concerned, it was the ultimate betrayal.
Tom made his way down the stairs and took a deep breath before he turned the corner. He put on a sad face before entering the living room. Then he walked right up to Claire and put his arm around her, kissing her long and passionately before stepping back to look her up and down lustily.
Claire nearly dropped her cup of tea. “Tom? What are you doing here?”
Tom watched his brother’s reaction from the corner of his eye, saw how the color drained from his face. “Why, didn’t you know? I’m Mitch’s little brother.”
He caught Claire when she weaved. “You are the mysterious brother?” She looked over at Mitch, her eyes wide. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
Mitch pushed Tom away from her. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. “How do you two know each other?”
Tom backed away and grinned. “I thought you knew, big brother.” He looked around the room and said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “We lived together in Windsor a few years ago.” Tom watched the rage build up in Mitch, saw Big Joe position himself between them.
Through clenched teeth, Mitch addressed his brother. “Why you little basta---”
“Mitch,” Joe yelled just as Mitch took a swing at Tom. Joe caught the blow with a loud grunt and held Mitch back.
“I’m going to kill you, Tom.” Mitch struggled against the bigger man. “You just wait, you little prick.”
“Settle down.” Joe pushed Mitch back.
Tom stepped in behind Bob. “I didn’t know who she was, Mitch. We met in Windsor the year she went back to university.”
But he did know. He had sought Claire out on purpose, his brother’s favorite woman.