Dedicated to my favorite avid reader, Rachel.
DEX AND MEGAN STOOD side by side at Dirk’s bed the following morning, their hands locked in a tight grip. It reminded Megan of their mother’s death and the way they’d clung to one another so very long ago, making her legs quake where they stood. The heartache and devastating loss of fourteen years ago washed over her and held her chest in a tight grip.
However, the emotions were different now, feelings bordering on guilt, rather than sadness, and anger rather than grief. How can I feel sorry for a man who methodically broke all feelings of love and respect into little pieces?
“He looks smaller than I remember,” Dex whispered.
“Years of drinking will do that.”
He turned to face her, his eyes drawn together. “Was it that bad?”
Megan nodded, fighting the tears that filled her eyes. “He hates me,” she sobbed, releasing the pain that had built over the years. Dex pulled her into his arms.
“Mary,” Dirk muttered, then opened his eyes wider. “Dex, is that you, boy?” Tears sprang to his eyes and Megan felt a pang of jealousy, knowing that even now Dex remained his favorite.
Dex released Megan and moved closer to his father. “Yes, Pa it’s me.”
“I’m glad you came, been doing a lot of thinking.” Dirk shifted his eyes to his daughter.
Megan wiped her tears away, sucking up her sorrow and stepped up to his bedside. “How are you feeling today, Dad?”
“Are you in a lot of pain? Should I call the nurse in here?” she asked concerned.
“I’ve been to the other side, but I have unfinished business. I know I’m dying.”
“Don’t talk like that. Doctor Brown says you’re doing fine,” Dex scolded.
“Megan, I never meant to hurt you, Honey. I just loved your Mama so much. Every time I look at you, I see my Mary. Running away from you was easier than dealing with my loss.”
The confession came full force and made her run, tears streaming down her face.
“Megan wait,” Dex called.
“Let her go, son.”
MEGAN WAS TOO STUNNED to speak on the drive to the house, her head still spinning.
Just before reaching home, she finally found the courage to talk. “What did Dad say to you?”
Dex sighed, “He apologized for pushing me away.”
Megan nodded. “He said the same thing to me. He’s called me Mary twice.”
A slight smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “I’m not surprised. The resemblance is remarkable.”
That should be comforting to her, but it wasn’t. Megan cringed and bowed her head, knowing that because of the fact that she looked like her mother, her father ignored her.
ANNA AND ABBY CARRIED in the food as the Brady family sat down to dinner in their dining room. The gnawing in Corey’s gut told him that tonight would turn into an inquest instead of a relaxing family affair. Anna had that smug look on her face, the one that said she knew something and would enjoy taunting him, twisting the knife until he begged for mercy.
“How’s Dex?” Anna asked.
“Fine, he looks great, all tanned from the Florida sun,” Corey said, reaching for a piping hot biscuit.
“It’s a real shame what happened to Dirk,” Tom, Corey’s father stated. He shook his light brown head and looked across the length of the rectangular table to his wife. “I can’t imagine either of us turning our backs on our boys if one of us were to pass on.”
Abby gave a firm nod, her blonde bob snapping back into its perfect spot as a somber smile floated across her thin lips. “Death affects people in different ways.”
“Speaking of kids,” Corey began catching Anna’s green eyes across the table. “When will I be an Uncle?”
Nolan laughed and grabbed Anna’s hand. “We’re in negotiations.”
Corey sat forward, pleased that this would go better than he anticipated. If he stayed on the subject of kids, Anna would forget to dig for information. “Let me guess. Miss Fashionista has decided that her career should be the focus for the next decade.”
He did love having his best friend back home, and now that she made her fashion career in Endurance, and married his brother, it just made life a little more interesting. Corey did wonder how a construction worker and fashion designer managed to have anything to talk about though, their jobs were so very different.
Anna’s gaze narrowed as the playfulness drained out of her vibrant green eyes and shot daggers in his direction. Her smile faded as well, taken over by a sternness that made him look away.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’d like to concentrate on work for one year.” She turned from Corey and smiled sweetly at Nolan. “Then we can start our family.” Without a second to let her announcement hang in the air, she again focused on Corey, the corner of her pink mouth rising. “What’s the latest with you and Megan?”
Before he could even come up with one single word to say, all eyes turned to him. The heaviness of the silence made his heart race.
Nolan set his fork down with a clank. “I thought you weren’t going to do this at dinner.”
Anna shrugged, that self-satisfied smirk prominent. “I wasn’t, but his blatant attempt to corner me about kids leaves him fair game. Besides, we’re all family here,” she said before glancing around the table and sitting back in her chair pleased.
Corey looked down at the food on his plate, grabbed the fork and began eating. He didn’t have to respond. He could enjoy the creamy mashed potatoes, doused in butter and salt. He stabbed at a tender chunk of the steak, picked it up, and popped it into his mouth, and even while he did so, everyone continued to stare.
With a heavy sigh, he set the fork down. “I like her, no big deal.”
His father’s booming laughter made Corey wince. “Admitting that you like her makes it a big deal. Not once have you ever brought a woman here, or talked about one.”
Corey looked at his dad and scowled.
“That’s because he’s had a thing for Megan for years,” Anna interjected.
Abby gasped leaning over toward Nolan and smiled. “Tell me everything.”
Nolan shook his head. “You’re asking the wrong person.”
Abby raised an eyebrow. “So Anna knows all of Corey’s deepest, darkest secrets still?” She cocked her head, looking over at Corey. “Some things never change.”
Corey yanked the napkin from his lap and tossed it on the table. “I thought this was going to be a relaxing dinner.”
Abby patted his hand. “Okay, we’ll stop badgering you. Dinner’s getting cold anyway.”
“Yeah, right,” Corey stated full of disbelief. He fastened his gaze upon Anna. “When has she ever let anything go?”
Anna picked off the end of her biscuit, tossed it into her mouth, and smirked. “You know you love that about me. If it weren’t for me, Megan wouldn’t have come running to you with the knowledge that Nolan and I were making out at The Stix.”
That memory roused a smile but seemed so very long ago.
THE PHONE RANG IN THE middle of the night, waking Megan out of a deep sleep. She reached out, groping for the phone from the table next to her bed. Retrieving it from the base, she brought it to her ear and croaked a groggy hello.
“Megan, its Dr. Brown.”
She bolted upright, an instant ache in her chest. “Is something wrong?”
A quiet sigh pierced her ear, and her heart tightened making it hard to breathe.
“I’m sorry. Your father didn’t make it.”
Tears filled her eyes and began their slow descent down her cheeks. Her bedroom door opened, and Dex stood in the pale yellow light of the hallway. He moved into the room, sitting beside her as the mattress creaked from his weight, mimicking the cries she suppressed. He took the phone from her and finished the conversation, his soft voice fading away as memories assaulted her.
The thought of her father dying in a lonely hospital room hunched Megan over.
FOR THE NEXT TWO days, Dex and Megan went through the motions. She couldn’t help the fact that seeing Dex leaning on his wife, Karen, and their two children made her heart ache even more. Megan had no one, and the worst part was that she knew it.
Joe and Corey had both been to the house to pay their respects, but the animosity between the men she couldn’t deal with, so she steered clear of them both. Megan struggled with the conflicting emotions that came and went. She fought to stop the flood of tears that would leave her crying for hours. Sometimes she sat unmovingly, focused on a bare spot on the wall, her heart too raw to cope. Finding herself caught between a comforting friendship she’d grown accustomed to, still wanted, but couldn’t bring herself to turn to again, and a man she loved and would do anything for, seemed to make matters worse.
In all the craziness that surrounded her, something strange happened. An unexpected person appeared on her doorstep and began helping with the housework and the funeral arrangements. Of all the people living in that town, the last person Megan expected to find supportive was Anna Brady.
Just after Dex and Megan came home from the hospital, Anna showed up with her arms full of food and a kind smile. She’d come into the house, re-heated a casserole and then cleaned the kitchen as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to do. Before anyone could say a word, she hurried off to clean the bathrooms and the living room. In a daze from the morning’s events, Megan found it hard to interfere. All she knew was that someone with a clear head needed to step in. Anna made small talk, doing her best to distract Megan from thinking about her loss, and Megan found it comforting to have someone to talk to since her friends were few and far between. Joe stepped up and became her only support system when Dex and Karen moved away, but that too was now over. She couldn’t continue to burden him with her problems when she knew that he wanted more than she was able to give, so backing off was the only solution.
After the funeral, Megan waited by the door, wishing Corey would walk through it. Loneliness continued to surround her heart, even though Dex stood only a few feet away. Everything about her life seemed different somehow. Before, Megan’s purpose was to take care of her father, with him gone, she had no direction in her life. For the first time ever, she only had to worry about herself, and that terrified her.
Anna moved beside her and gave Megan a reassuring squeeze on her arm. “How are you holding up?”
“Are you hungry? Can I get anything for you?”
Megan shook her head, the thought of food unappealing when her mind was elsewhere. Before she could speak, Joe came through the door with the nurse from the hospital and headed straight towards her. He looked nice in his black suit, his damp brown hair brushed neatly off to the side.
He pulled her into his arms and brushed a light kiss on her cheek. “Sorry I didn’t make it to the cemetery. How are you doing, Meg?”
She looked up at him, at her friend, the man who’d been around to help her through the difficult days over the last five years and knew that she couldn’t push him out of her life. She wanted his friendship, needed that lifeline because it gave her something meaningful to look forward to on a daily basis, other than work, and cleaning up after Dirk, and for that reason alone, she would not turn her back on him.
“I’m doing okay.”
He smiled down at her, the affection visible, before turning to the woman beside him. “You remember Beth Lane.”
Megan shook the offered hand. “Thanks for taking such good care of my father.”
The red-headed nurse smiled. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Megan loved Beth’s emerald green eyes. They differed from Anna’s lighter ones and held genuine warmth. She was slim and stood shoulder to shoulder with Joe. The more she looked at the two of them, the more she realized how good they looked together as if they were a couple. How do I feel about that?
Anna cleared her throat. “Hello, Joe. Beth, you look wonderful, I hardly recognized you.”
Beth chuckled, “Fifty pounds will do that to a person.”
Megan felt him the second he came into the house. The familiar excitement when he walked into a room raced up her spine as she turned, ready to go and greet him.
A hand on her arm prevented her from moving forward. “Ya know, yer daddy was a good man. Sure am gonna miss him,” Eli Wilson said, his voice thick with sadness.
“Thank you, Eli. He was very fond of you.”
“Yea, no one could out drink me like yer daddy.”
The acknowledgment made her stomach queasy. “Make sure you get some food.”
Megan continued walking, getting closer to Corey with every step, a smile enveloping her face as her heart hammered in her chest. “Hi,” she said. Her eyes latched onto his making her breath catch, and for one brief moment, they were the only two people on the planet.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Nolan interrupted.
Snapping her eyes to him, Megan nodded and blushed. She hadn’t even realized that Nolan was standing there until he spoke.
“How are you holding up,” Corey asked.
“I’m doing all right. The thought that gives me comfort is that he is finally reunited with my mom.”
Corey reached out, took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. His touch, so strong and comforting sent heat racing up her arm. “I’m sure he is.”
“Where is Anna?” Nolan asked.
“Last I saw she was back in the kitchen.” Turning to Nolan she said, “She’s been great to me.”
“Let me know if she becomes a problem. I love her, but she can be a bit imperious.” Nolan smiled and walked away.
“Is he serious?” Megan whispered.
Corey laughed, “Oh yes. Just you wait and see.” The smiled left his face as their eyes locked again. “You look tired. Can I get you something to eat or drink?”
His sudden concern for her well-being made her heart soar as if it had wings and could take flight like a dove. Her stomach rumbled at the mention of food, a reminder of the lack of sustenance these last few days. “Join me?”
He nodded and waited for her to lead the way. Heading to the kitchen together, his hand rested in the middle of her back, and that simple gesture was enough to make her want more. Megan fought the urge to turn around and crawl into the comfort of his arms, to get lost with the man of her dreams. Passing Joe and Beth on the way in, she felt the heated stare Joe directed to Corey. She hoped they would keep their cool and not cause a scene. Megan smiled at both of them, and somehow, Corey and Joe seemed to brush shoulders. Cringing, Megan grabbed Corey’s hand and pulled him along into the kitchen.
A vast array of lunchmeats, cheeses, bread and cold cuts lined the kitchen counter. Megan grabbed a plate and handed it to Corey, took another and made herself a sandwich. After they both filled their dishes, Megan made sure she stayed between Joe and Corey as they headed to the living room to find a place to sit down.
They ate in silence, but she couldn’t understand why he was so quiet. Once she finished most of her sandwich, she turned to him. Corey gnawed his food, his focus across the house to Joe. Megan shook her head in disgust. What in the hell is wrong with the two of them? Here she was in mourning, having buried her father hours earlier, and these two were acting like jealous, possessive idiots. Anger ignited in the pit of her stomach, red-hot fury racing through her veins. There was no way she would continue to sit there and watch them act like children.
Standing, she snatched the plate from his lap, added it to the one in her hand and glared at him. “Thank you for coming.” Pivoting on her heel, Megan marched away from him.