A SHINY BLACK CASKET SITS SEVERAL feet in front of us, a canopy barely protecting us from the cold Texas December. I wear a black dress and raincoat, appropriate for a rainy Thursday spent having your heart ripped out. Tellar, my security guard and friend, stands to my left, while Liam, the man I love with all my heart, is on my right, his arm around my waist to steady me. Still I sway on wobbly legs and Tellar’s hand settles on my elbow. My eyes burn with the brotherly action that I know goes beyond his professional duty as our security guard. It also reminds me of the brother I have lost.
We are alone. The surprisingly large crowd has dispersed, but among it had been friends of my long lost family, scholars who admired my parents’ work, Treasure Hunters who knew my brother, and citizens of Jasmine Heights, the city I’d once called home. Thanks to the journal Chad left behind at the scene of his accident, exposing the dirty details of our past, they’d all known me today as Lara again rather than Amy. He’d spilled select parts of my past with his in the diary, exposing the way he’d hidden me to protect me and let me believe that he was dead.
Thunder rumbles overhead, but I do not jump. Maybe it’s because there seems to be a million explosions going on in my head and heart right now. Really, what is one more? Oh so aware that we are always being watched, I steel myself against prying eyes as I break away from Liam and Tellar. Walking to the side of the casket, which has remained closed for the entire service, I rip away one of my gloves and press my bare hand to the glossy surface. Cold that is far more about the loss of my brother than the bitterness of the weather chills my palm and seeps into my bones. My only peace is in the way my protectors are instantly by my side, their big bodies shielding me from the wind and rain.
“Amy,” Liam says softly. “You know this isn’t—”
“I know what this is,” I whisper, tilting my head to look at him, the concern etched in his piercing aqua eyes giving me a sense of unity that I need right now. “I do,” I add, not really certain if I’m trying to reassure him or myself. “But this is real to me on so many levels.”
He draws my hand into his and leads my knuckles to his lips, where they linger a moment. “Let me take you home.”
“Home?” I whisper, the word a bittersweet song in my shredded heart. I’ve not felt I had such a place since the day of the fire that killed my parents only a few miles from where I now stand.
“Yes,” Liam says. “Home.” He gently removes a strand of hair caught on my lip, one of those mindless tender gestures that make me feel special in ways only Liam can. “And just in case you don’t know,” he adds, “anyplace you are is home to me.”
Tears I thought I’d exhausted during the service well up in my eyes. “I love you, Liam Stone.”
“I love you, too, baby. More than life itself. Now, let’s get you out of the rain and cold.”
I nod and allow him to turn me away from the casket, afraid that I’ll completely break down if I look at it again. Liam pulls up the hood on my coat and Tellar raises an umbrella above me. Cold droplets hit us as we step from beneath the canvas, yet I walk slowly as the finality of leaving this place begins to soak in.
When we reach the black sedan we’ve rented, Liam opens the back door and I settle inside. He follows, and Tellar seals us into the space that feels smaller than it should. Pushing back my hood, I shrug out of my wet coat as Liam does the same. We shove them by the doors, moving to the middle of the seat together. Facing Liam, I find his dark hair wet, and I reach up to wipe away the water clinging to his neatly trimmed goatee. “You’re soaked.”
He covers my hand with his, and I like the way it makes me feel, as if he’s holding on to me and will never let go. “We’re going to get through this.”
Damn it, more tears escape from my eyes, proving my efforts to be strong are failing. Liam is there though, rescuing me in a small way that feels big, wrapping me in his arms and the warm cocoon of his body. I sink against his chest, sliding my fingers beneath the jacket of his black suit, and I no longer fight the explosion of emotions that follows. Liam seems to understand, holding me, riding out this new storm with me, whispering to me at just the right moments. Understanding what I need in a way that defies the man he shows everyone else. The man who is alpha and powerful on the outside but sensitive enough to know when a bull charging at me isn’t what works.
The avalanche of emotions finally becomes a dull ache in my chest, the tears have streaked down my cheeks but are no longer flowing, and my hand has found its way to Liam’s heart, the steady beat soothing my frazzled nerves. The car is in motion and I don’t even know when we started moving. Time stands still; eternal in so many ways, but my mind is not silent. It is replaying every second of my last good-bye with Chad at the safe house in the Hamptons.
I’m repeating the way it felt to hug him for about the hundredth time when the car pulls to a halt at the landing strip where a private jet awaits us, cloaked in darkness. I glance at Liam’s Rolex, wondering if I’ve lost more time than I realized, but it’s only five in the evening. Tellar opens the door for us, holding an umbrella, and we exit into a downpour. Liam takes over the umbrella, trying to shelter me, but the rain’s torment is nothing compared to the brutal beating of the funeral. We hurry up a set of stairs and into the galley of the jet, discarding our coats and the umbrella. Liam walks to the cockpit to talk to the pilot while I bypass the leather couches in the front of the plane. Tellar will claim this area tonight as he had on the trip down here this morning; instead, I choose the solitude of the rear seating.