Authors: Kaylea Cross
She parked next to his truck and grabbed her purse and laptop case from the passenger seat before climbing out of her vehicle. The front windows were lit up, telling her that her father was either in the kitchen or the family room. Maybe he’d stopped by to cook for her as a surprise? Not that she’d hold her breath on that one or anything.
The yard was in pretty sorry shape, she realized on her way to the front door, wishing she’d taken the time to clean up the leaves all over the lawn and driveway while they were dry instead of leaving them to get soaked and slimy. Now it’d be twice the work. When she unlocked the door and called for her father, the only warning she got that something was wrong was the absolute silence.
“Dad?” she called again, frowning as she set her laptop, keys and purse on the entry table by the door.
“In here, Claire.”
At the sound of Gage’s voice she froze, her heart stuttering. Immediately she whipped around to stare through the side panel window at the street. She’d been so distracted by the sight of her father’s pickup in the driveway she’d failed to see Gage’s vehicle parked at the curb across the street. What the hell was he doing here?
Already uneasy, she stepped around the corner of the entry wall and stopped dead at the sight before her. Her father and Gage both sat on her family room sofa, one on either end. Gage was leaning forward, forearms braced on his thighs, staring at her. Her father’s eyes were red rimmed and bleary, his face blotchy. He’d been crying? She could count on one hand how many times she’d ever seen him cry. Fear snaked up her spine. There was only one reason she could think of for putting that look on her father’s face and bringing the both of them here unannounced.
She felt brittle and exposed standing there, fear grinding in her gut.
“What—” Her throat closed up, suddenly too tight to get another word out. She swung her gaze to Gage. He stood and took a step toward her as though he intended to come to her, then stopped himself, his features set. Resigned.
“Come sit down, Claire.” His voice was soft. Too soft, almost cajoling.
The fear turned into a full blown panic. Her heart slammed against her ribs. She shook her head and took an instinctive step back. She didn’t want to sit down. Didn’t want to hear what they were going to tell her. Denial and terror shot through her because deep down she already knew what they were going to say. “No.” She shook her head and took another stumbling step back. “No, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Honey,” her father rasped out, voice shot. His expression was filled with such anguish she knew her worst fears had just been confirmed.
“No!” Before either of them could move she turned and bolted for the bathroom down the hall. Slamming the door shut behind her she locked it and leaned her back to it, clenching her hands in her hair, a wail of grief clawing its way up her throat. Her wobbling legs gave out and she slowly sank to the floor, caught between wanting to scream and the urge to crawl over to the toilet and throw up.
“Jesus, oh Jesus,” she whimpered, rocking there on the cold tile floor with her arms wrapped around herself. She dimly realized she was shaking, hot tears rolling down her face. The horror and pain flooding her were too much. A hot pressure gripped her chest, squeezing the air from her lungs until it felt like her heart was about to implode. She fought to contain it, shove the agony away where it couldn’t touch her but all that did was make her throat turn raw with the ugly, harsh sounds coming out of her. So many emotions crashed through her she couldn’t process them all. Denial. Panic. Rage. And a deep, aching guilt that this was her fault.
“Claire.” Gage’s voice, steady and calm, just on the other side of the door. She hadn’t heard him coming. “Claire, open the door.”
She couldn’t. Couldn’t deal with this or having Gage see her at her most vulnerable. She curled into a tight ball and covered her head with her arms, wanting to scream. This had to be a bad dream. Any second now she’d wake up and everything would be okay again.
“Claire. Open it.”
“N-no,” she managed, gulping in ragged breaths in between the harsh sobs wracking her. She heard the sound of him settling against the door, heard his knees crack as he bent down.
Then, so gently she wept even harder, he kept talking to her. “Come out, sweetheart. You don’t have to do this alone.”
Claire curled up tighter and kept crying until she gagged. She lurched to her knees and lunged blindly for the toilet, got the seat up just in time. Her fingers curled around the edge of the plastic seat. As those first few terrible waves tore through her she dimly heard the sound of the lock rattling behind her. The door swung open a moment later. Still bent over the toilet bowl, she made a sound of misery and flung one hand out behind her to stave him off, humiliated and angry that he’d invade her privacy at a time like this. Then another wave seized her and she kept her head over the bowl as her stomach emptied itself with a gut-wrenching spasm.
Ignoring her wishes, Gage knelt beside her. One hand wrapped around the wad of hair she’d been trying to hold back while the other reached out to tear a strip of toilet paper from the holder on the wall beside the toilet. Between the vomiting and the crying she barely had enough control to suck in the occasional lungful of air, let alone have the strength to argue or fight him.
Her eyes watered too much for her to see what he was doing beside her. When nothing came up but bitter, acidic bile, her stomach eventually stopped rebelling and she weakly leaned her cheek against her forearms, braced on the toilet rim. Her eyes felt so swollen she could barely open them and she was shivering uncontrollably. Too weak to protest, she didn’t resist when Gage raised her upper body to brace her against his chest. Automatically her hands came up to curl into the softness of his T-shirt and she hid her face there. This pain was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know how she’d bear it.
Without a word Gage reached back to open the cabinet beneath the sink and took something out of it. He ran the tap for a second before shutting the water off and she heard him squeeze out a cloth in the sink. “Here,” he said quietly, cupping the back of her neck to tip her head up enough for him to wipe her face.
She flinched at the cold of it, shocked back into a reality she had no desire to confront. Refusing to meet his eyes, she sat still and allowed him to wash all traces of tears and sickness from her face. He flushed the toilet, set the cloth in the sink and slipped his arms beneath her. “Come on.” The powerful muscles in his arms and chest bunched beneath her hands and cheek as he hoisted her into the air and carried her out of the bathroom.
In the family room he eased her onto the loveseat across from the sofa and didn’t protest when she turned away from him to curl into a ball at the arm of it. He placed the throw blanket over her but she didn’t feel the warmth. Exhaustion and numbness were beginning to steal through her body and she welcomed them both.
“Wayne, would you mind getting her a drink? She’ll have orange juice in the fridge.”
“Sure.” Her father pushed to his feet and shuffled into the kitchen, leaving her with the last person on earth she could afford to be alone with at the moment. He’d even remembered she always kept orange juice on hand—the pure stuff, not the concentrated crap. Every morning after he’d spent the night at her place they’d sat either at the kitchen table or out on the back deck, drinking a glass of it with their breakfast. The reminder sent a fresh flood of tears to her already burning eyes.
Rather than try to hold her again Gage sank onto the loveseat beside her and this time kept his distance. Not an easy thing to do considering how small the piece of furniture was and how much space his solid frame took up. Claire kept her eyes closed, not wanting to look at him or her father. It was all she could do to breathe with this invisible vise crushing her chest.
The familiar scent of her father’s aftershave reached her a moment later, then he set a glass on the table beside her with quiet click that told her he’d remembered to use one of the coasters she kept there. She swallowed the hard lump in her throat and took a deep, steadying breath before prying her eyes open to face him across the room where he’d sat back on the sofa.
“When?” she asked, her throat so raw it came out a croak.
Her father’s stubbled jaw quivered a second, then firmed before he answered. “They think sometime early this morning.”
He’d been gone that long, lying there alone and undiscovered? “Did he overdose?”
Instead of answering her he shot a questioning look at Gage, and her stomach twisted again as he turned his eyes back on her. “No. Guess he wanted to make sure this time, so…” He clamped his lips together and sucked in a shuddering breath through his nose. When he had control of himself he continued. “He put his service pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.”
Her stomach turned. She closed her eyes and turned away, unable to cope with it. Except all she saw now on the backs of her closed lids was the image of her brother’s brain matter sprayed all over the walls of his cluttered apartment. She gagged, bolted into a sitting position.
Gage reached for her but she held him off with a mute shake of her head and swallowed repeatedly. The shivers were still coursing through her, convulsive shudders that hurt her muscles. It took more than a minute of focused breathing before she could trust herself not to throw up again. She settled back into the corner of the loveseat and looked over at her father. “Did the police call you?”
“They came to my house around four this afternoon. I called your cell right away and kept trying but I couldn’t get through, then I tried you at work but only got your voicemail.”
“I was in meetings all afternoon and my cell’s dead.” And after that she’d been out sharing drinks and laughs with Mel and Zahra, while her brother was lying dead in his apartment and her father had been frantically trying to reach her.
“I didn’t know how else to get in touch with you so I came over and found Gage’s number. I asked him to be here when you got back because I thought it might…make things easier for you.”
She understood that he thought he’d been doing her a favor. He didn’t realize that having Gage here was only making her bleed more inside, like dying a slow death from a thousand cuts. “Was there a note?”
Again he hesitated before answering and she felt her body tense in reaction, as though it expected a physical blow. “Yeah. I told the police to keep it because it was stained with…his blood and I couldn’t handle seeing it.” A glaze of tears turned his eyes glassy. “It said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t handle this anymore. Please forgive me. Your lives will be better without me here. Love you both.’ That was all.”
The leaden weight in her chest cavity seemed to be spreading, filling her abdomen and creeping down her limbs. A high-pitched ringing started up in her ears and the room tilted. She shot out a hand to steady herself against the arm of the loveseat.
Gage reached past her, picked up the juice and held the glass to her lips. “Take a sip.”
She started to shake her head but thought better of it and did as he said, hating that he was here to witness this drama and see her at her absolute worst. His acceptance and caring were unbearable right now.
The sweet/tart juice hit her parched tongue, flooded her mouth with saliva. She had to swallow twice to get each sip down, but the sugar hit her system fast and the worst of the wooziness passed. When she was half finished with the juice she gently pushed Gage’s hand away and he set the glass back on the coaster.
“I called your mother,” her father announced, making Claire look up at him in astonishment. It was no secret that they didn’t communicate at all, and hadn’t since she remarried. He shrugged. “Figured she should hear it from me. She’s flying in day after tomorrow. Danny’s at the hospital now but they’re releasing him to the funeral home tomorrow. I’m not sure I… Do you want to see him?”
The thought of seeing her brother’s body, knowing part of his skull was blown out filled her with revulsion. “No. God, no. And he wouldn’t want any of us seeing him like that either.”
Her father nodded, no judgement in his gaze. “I think he’d want a quiet service.”
“Just family,” she confirmed. Danny would’ve hated a giant spectacle on his behalf. “I’ll take care of the arrangements first thing in the morning.” The words were so surreal it was hard to believe they’d come out of her mouth.
His shoulders, always so broad and strong to her, suddenly seemed thin and frail as he sagged a little. “Thanks. I don’t think I could handle that. And I know things have been really hard on you since Danny was wounded. You’ve been amazing through everything.” He paused, gave a bitter laugh. “Hell, ever since your mother walked out.” He placed his palms on his thighs and straightened, looked her square in the eye. “I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me and Danny over the years.”