Authors: Justine Dell
all of those who
and still had the
to not only go on
Piper Downing smoothed a brush through the coarse salt and pepper hair. Finally satisfied, she gave the homely hairdo a spritz of hairspray before moving onto the makeup. She glanced once more at the picture sitting on the table next to her. With agile hands, she gave Mrs. Dobson a hint of foundation, enough to cover the waxy look of her aged skin, but not enough to make her look painted. Piper put on a dab of muted pink blush, a thin sliver of black eyeliner and a hint of gray shadow. A final splash of ruby red lipstick, the same kind Mrs. Dobson had worn every day as she’d delivered the mail, made Piper smile. Mrs. Dobson looked perfect and happy, even in death.
Piper rose from her metal stool, touching Mrs. Dobson once more over the heart.
“Rest in peace,” she said quietly. “I’ll miss your fruitcake.”
Mrs. Dobson would have appreciated that piece of humor. The older woman had made everyone on her route fruitcake every Christmas, even though everyone hated it. Mrs. Dobson loved to see the people hide their internal cringes with smiles. Piper had never hidden her cringe. She’d always teased Mrs. Dobson that the birds didn’t like the fruitcake either. And to prove her point, Piper had hung the ringed cake from her porch every year. And every year it was never touched. And yet, Mrs. Dobson still gave her the terrible baked good every season with a mischievous smile.
Chuckling to herself, Piper pushed Mrs. Dobson into the refrigeration unit. She stripped off her plastic apron, folded it neatly, and placed it in the bin to be sanitized. After washing her hands, she checked her wristwatch and rushed out of the workroom. Her practical flats made no sound on the old wooden steps leading up from the prep area. Once on the top landing, she pressed a hand down the front of her white blouse and black skirt, making sure it wasn’t terribly wrinkled from the work she’d been doing. She slipped off the flats, replacing them with black patent-leather heels. She grabbed her black jacket from the hook, slid it on, and ran her fingers over her hair to make sure her twist was still neatly in place. Satisfied, she pushed open the solid wood door, taking in a deep breath of non-embalming room air. Piper much preferred the smell of the fresh flowers that were always found in abundance on the main floor of the funeral home.
Jessica, Piper’s secretary, met Piper at soon as the door clicked shut behind her.
“Everything all set with Mrs. Dobson?” Jessica asked in that kind, slow voice she always used when people were somewhere else in the funeral parlor.
“Yes.” Piper stepped away from the door that led under the main staircase in the home’s foyer. A loud commotion echoed from the viewing area. “People have arrived for the Oliver viewing already?”
Jessica’s big doe eyes blinked as she nodded. “They started showing up over an hour ago.”
Piper frowned and glanced once more at her watch. It was only fifteen until one. The viewing wasn’t schedule to start for another forty-five minutes. “What are they doing?”
Jessica ran her fingers through her flame-red pixie cut hair, twisting the small length at the back like she always did when she didn’t know the answer to something.
“It’s okay,” Piper replied. “They might need extra time to mourn. Mrs. Oliver was ninety-four and had a large family, so starting early might have been an answer.” She would have been more than willing to give the Oliver family more time, even going as far as scheduling everything earlier in the day, giving the family plenty of time to say goodbye to their loved one. All they’d needed to do was ask. Then again, Piper should have seen the need in the first place. “Anything else?”
Jessica shook her head. “I’ll get back to my station.”
“Thanks.” Piper gave the young woman a confident smile, appreciative of her hard work. “Make sure you leave on time today,” Piper added before Jessica had a chance to bounce away. “I don’t want you being late for Lenny’s daycare program tonight.”
A grin spread across Jessica’s face. “I won’t. Thank you. For remembering.”
Piper made her way across the vast foyer, her heels clicking softly on the old oak floor. She was interested in the laughs, thunderous voices, and fuss coming from the viewing area. They were sounds she didn’t hear often.
She stopped at the open sliding doors that led to the viewing room, where wood floor met plushy carpet. Her toes came right to the edge, making sure she was as close as she could be without actually stepping inside. Piper dealt with death every day. However, dealing with the deceased was far different than dealing with a room full of people in mourning. When there was a viewing or funeral, the thick musty feeling of sorrow would choke her. Suffocate her like a constricting blanket, reminding her far too well of everything she’d lost in her short lifetime. So now she stayed away from the
as far as she possibly could. But this didn’t sound like anything she was used to, and that intrigued her. She raised her eyes and gazed inside. A huddle of men dressed in dark suits stood next to the casket, laughing. A circle of women had rearranged the standard row seating, turning all the chairs so they faced each other. Children ran to and fro. People were talking loudly, giggling, and mingling like it was a Sunday family get-together. And the music, the soft orchestral music that always played during a viewing, had been changed. Was that jazz music Piper heard?
Piper had seen a lot of different viewings in her time. Ones where everyone cried, ones where no one spoke a word, ones that were soft-spoken and loving as guests talked to the loved ones. But in the five years since taking over the business, she’d never seen one so upbeat. Were they happy this woman had died or were they covering their pain with fake laughs and family camaraderie?
Shaking her head, Piper looked through the hoard of people, trying to find Mr. Oliver, the deceased’s husband. He’d been the one to make the original arrangements, and she remembered him being sullen. She couldn’t imagine him being so perky only forty-eight hours later.
Mr. Oliver definitely wasn’t talking with the chattering women. He wasn’t running around with the wild children. Piper stepped back and gasped when a blond-headed toddler darted right past her. Frowning, she stood on her tiptoes to see if she could see over the hoard of men surrounding the casket. She couldn’t see anything but giraffe-sized, light-blond men, and Mr. Oliver certainly did not have light blond hair.
She slightly rocked back on her heels and gave up. Everyone looked okay, and since the viewing was so informal it would be a good time for her to get some paperwork done. No sense in her standing by the doorway like a statue while everyone else was having so much fun. Mr. Oliver would know where to find her if he needed something. And so would Jessica.
She spun on her heel, adjusted her jacket once more, and went to take a step. The firm grasp of a strong hand around her elbow stopped her.
“Ms. Downing?” a low voice said.
She plastered a professional smile on her face and turned back around. It was a look she had perfected over the years. “Yes?”
A man looking to be in his thirties loomed over her. He was a good foot taller than her and she was wearing heels. He was smiling at her with half-cocked, very white grin.
“Grandpa would like to see you.” The man’s voice was smooth. He blinked, bringing Piper’s gaze from his flashy smile to his eyes. She’d never seen eyes so light green. They almost matched the iridescent hue of his ultra-blond hair. And his right eye was even lighter than the left, with the skin around it lighter than rest of his face. Fascinating.
She cleared her throat as his hand slid from her elbow. “Mr. Oliver? Of course.”
He motioned with his head. “He’s sitting next to Grandma.”
Piper gave him a comforting smile and used her soft voice. “Is he doing okay? Does he need something?”
The man tilted his head and studied her. His face had sharp contours, but smooth edges. The perfect combination between hard and soft. Something flickered across his expression.
“He’s fine,” the man replied. “We are taking good care of him.”
Piper’s cheeks went hot. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it like that. I’m, um, normally more involved in the viewings, on the sidelines, of course, but his guests look—” Goodness, what was a word she could use?
“Happy?” he finished for her.
“Yes. I mean…” She shuffled her suddenly uncomfortable feet. “Viewings can be upbeat and lighthearted. Strange, even. I saw one last year where the husband slept next to his wife’s coffin for three days before the funeral.” She snapped her jaw shut.
The man gave a soft chuckle.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
He only smiled and nodded, making the tufted strands of his curly silken hair bounce. “I’m not judging you.”
Good. Great. She’d managed to make a fool out of herself in front of a total stranger.
“Um, your grandpa?” she reminded.
“Yes.” He took her gently by the elbow and led her back in the viewing room.
She paused at the threshold where the foyer met the viewing room. The room normally so full of sorrow she couldn’t bear to step inside. The gentleman must have noticed her hesitation because his grip around her elbow loosened briefly, before growing stronger with a slight tug. When she crossed the point of no return, the fascinating man rewarded her with a gleaming smile. If she ever had to picture what an angel looked like, this man would be one. Light slashed through the colored windows, brightening all his already light features. He looked like he glowed. And those eyes…
Her pointed heels made her a bit off-balance on the plush, floral pattern carpet. But they looked so good with all her black work outfits. It was a neat total package. Besides, during a viewing or funeral, she spent ninety-nine percent of her time right outside the doors, peering in and answering questions from the comfort of the hardwood. Perfect and practical did not go together.
The crowd of men parted as they approached. Piper spied Mr. Oliver, sitting in a chair at the head of his wife’s casket, with an arm draped over the edge, stroking her gray hair.
His aged blue eyes met Piper’s when the men shuffled away. Not wanting to make him stand, she went to kneel before him to talk to him at eye-level. But before she could get down on one knee, Mr. Oliver was out of his chair, arms stretched out wide. Before she could blink, Piper was wrapped in his arms.
Her immediate reaction was to curl her arms around his back and pat him softly. Compassion was important in her line of work.
“Thank you,” he whispered with an aged-cracked voice in her ear. His voice wasn’t as somber as it had been the first time she’d met him. But he didn’t sound like he’d be singing any show-tunes anytime soon, either. He took hold of her shoulders in an oddly-tight grip and put her at arm’s length. The wrinkles on his face folded up into a sincere smile. “She looks beautiful, Ms. Downing. And happy. So at peace. I couldn’t have asked for better.”
Piper returned the smile. “My pleasure, Mr. Oliver. Do you need anything at all?”
He shook his head, glancing at Mrs. Oliver once more in the casket. “I can’t wait to see her again. She would be so proud of everything we’ve done for her. This is a good day.” He patted her shoulder. “A good day,” he repeated.
Piper frowned. It was a good day to see your wife of over seventy years in a casket?
“Of course,” she finally answered, unsure of anything else to say. “If you don’t need anything else…” She went to turn about.
“Wait.” His warm grip on her hand stopped her. “We’d like you to come to the family gathering tonight.”
Piper didn’t look him in the eye as she answered. “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
The strange man who had led her to the room stepped beside her and touched a hand to her shoulder. “It would mean a great deal to the family,” he said.
She finally glanced at Mr. Oliver’s eyes, something she tried not to do when family members of the deceased started to look like they were getting too friendly with her. Compassion was important to Piper, yes, but detachment was as well. If she didn’t strike the perfect balance between compassion and detachment, she would feel all the pain her clients did. And since she’d had enough pain to last her two lifetimes, she avoided it at all cost.
“Please?” Mr. Oliver said. “It’s very informal, and the family would love to meet you.”
Piper hid a cringe. The man at her side took another step toward her. Close enough that she could feel the heat from his lean body.
“It’s only dinner,” the man whispered, smooth and errantly calm. “I promise we don’t bite.”
Cornered and suddenly aching to get away from the touchiness of the situation, Piper answered, “I’d love to.”
Mr. Oliver’s face lifted into a heartfelt grin. “Good. Good. Six, okay?”
“I’ll be there.” After agreeing, Piper hauled her off-balanced butt out of the viewing room and straight to her office.
The office door clicked shut behind her, and Piper drooped against it and banged her head back. What had she agreed to do? Go to a client’s house? A client who was mourning the death of a loved one, with an entire—
family that was mourning? Albeit they were mourning in a strange manner. But hey, different strokes for different folks.
She padded over to her desk and slid down in her overstuffed leather seat. Piper had only one rule for running the funeral home: get close enough to the family to gauge what they needed and allow them to express themselves in whatever way that might be. Her objectivity served her—otherwise, emotions got in the way. She did not ever,
get personally attached or even friendly with anyone she had served. Getting attached meant feeling emotions. So dinner, or whatever the heck she’d agreed to, was precisely against her rule.