It was hard to take in. That my father was dead. That he’d actually said three little words to me that I could never remember him saying during my entire childhood just before taking his last breath. The “I love you,” whispered in his raspy, gasping breath before he’d coded, had felt too little too late, but still I was trying to savor that one moment of paternal acceptance and offer of affection.
What was even harder to take in, comprehend…fucking understand, was that he’d left me everything. Everything. Why would he do that? I couldn’t take over for him in all of his companies. I didn’t have a business degree, couldn’t keep my eyes focused on anything that dealt with economics.
“Harpie.” A voice I recognized all too well murmured my name and I barely lifted my eyes to look at Cecil. Tears choked me as I took him in. Dressed in a suit that was half unbuttoned, his tie just hanging unknotted around his neck, and his eyes full of the exhaustion I was sure I would feel if I weren’t so numb, Cecil was one of the few people I actually wanted to see.
When four lawyers with steel in their eyes had suddenly appeared right after my father had coded, Shane’s gut reaction was to call Emmie. Mine had been to call my stepfather. He’d heard my tear-filled voice and chartered a jet so he could get to me as quickly as possible. That’s what daddies did when their little girls were hurting. Todd Jones had never done that, but Cecil Calloway always had.
As soon as he’d landed, Cecil had been by my side with Shane, holding me up so that I looked strong through two different press conferences—something that I’d been told had worked some good magic because the shareholders seemed appeased and the stock in the majority of Todd’s companies hadn’t dropped nearly as drastically as they could have had Annabelle and Cecil not assured everyone that their money and companies were in good hands.
Without questioning it, Cecil had stepped into the role the lawyers had all expected me to take. They’d actually seemed relieved that my stepfather had done so, and if I hadn’t been so blind with shock and grief, I might have realized that it was probably what Todd had wanted all along. By giving his controlling shares to me, he’d actually given all the control to Cecil—a man who had once been his closest friend until my mother had left Todd and eventually married Cecil. Cecil would make sure everything got taken care of with the businesses. It would be nothing to him because he was used to dealing with his own businesses on a daily basis.
A week had passed since Todd had died and today was his funeral. It had taken that long for us—Emmie—to get everything sorted. She’d asked what kind of arrangements I wanted to make, it was my responsibility after all, but I could only nod when she suggested one thing or another. Part of me hated that I was dumping it all on her, another part was too numb to care.
“Harpie, we have to leave for the church soon.” Cecil crouched in front of me, taking hold of my cold hands and trying to rub some warmth into them.
I nodded my understanding, feeling a tear fall onto my cheek. “Okay,” I whispered in a hoarse-sounding voice. I hadn’t used it much over the last week.
“Will you be able to walk?” my stepfather muttered, and I shrugged.
I barely had the strength to keep myself seated upright, so it was anyone’s guess if I could stand for as long as the day would demand of me. Shane had helped me dress earlier, right after giving me my daily hormone injection. It had surprised me that he had taken over that chore since he couldn’t stand the sight of anyone’s blood but his own, but he’d been doing a good job of it. I hadn’t even had the will to care if I took the treatments or not. What was the use? I wouldn’t be getting pregnant off the latest dosages, not with the latest stress I was under.
I’d told Shane that when he’d stuck the needle into my hip that morning, but he’d just wiped away the little smear of blood that beaded up, and then he pressed his warm lips to my forehead. “Don’t think like that,” he’d scolded softly before dressing me.
“The limo is here,” Shane announced as he came into the living room of our Santa Monica house.
I turned my gaze from Cecil to my husband and even through my numb fog I was helpless not to notice how delicious Shane looked in his suit. Shane in running shorts and an old T-shirt was something any woman with a pulse would stop and take a second look at. In jeans and an expensive shirt that he favored when he wasn’t in running gear could make me lose all mental capacity. My sexy-as-sin husband in a suit… Yeah, it was enough to wake my body up for the first time in a week.
Seeing the desire that I knew had to be shining out of my eyes, Shane gave me a wink that had my body melting in all the right places. With a few strides across the room, he reached me and then Cecil straightened to give him room. “Ready?” he murmured softly.
I nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
“Okay then.” He bent and lifted me into his arms as if I weighed nothing at all, before kissing my forehead. More tears surfaced and I had to blink hard to hold them back. “Let’s get this day over with, beautiful.”
Cecil followed us out to the waiting limo, carrying my purse and the sweater I’d left out to take with me. Peterson was waiting by the limo with Theo and opened the door for us before climbing in with us while Theo took the front passenger seat with the driver. In the back of the limo, Shane kept me on his lap and I was glad to stay there. Having his arms around me was probably the only reason I hadn’t fallen flat on my face since my father had died. I would give up every possession I owned as long as I could keep his arms wrapped around me like that forever.
No one spoke on the drive to the church where the funeral was taking place. When the limo pulled up in front of it, I saw there were already people arriving—along with the news vans, cameramen, reporters and photographers.
Would I ever get used to all the attention from the press?
I couldn’t really blame them for being there, it was their job after all, and my own was in the same field. I just wished that my personal life could be immune to all the attention. I knew it would be a wish that would never be fulfilled, but it didn’t stop me from hoping.
The back door of the car opened and Theo held it as Peterson stepped out. Cecil went next and then Shane handed me over to my stepfather long enough to get out. Then his arms were wrapping around me hard, keeping me anchored to his side. He was more or less holding me up since I didn’t have the strength to do it on my own, but no one would have realized that. To everyone who watched it just looked like my loving husband was holding me close as he and Peterson shielded me from the flashing cameras. Theo walked behind us, making sure Cecil was kept safe as we entered the church.
Emmie had pulled out all the stops with security. The place was surrounded with Seller’s men, keeping all the press back where they belonged and out of the sanctuary so we could mourn my father. Inside the church everything was heartbreakingly quiet. The pews were filling up with people I didn’t recognize and I assumed they were people Todd either worked with or who had been part of his personal life—a life I’d never known with him.
My family was already there as well. Emmie and Nik, Jesse and Layla, Lana and Drake. Dallas and Axton. Annabelle and Zander. Linc. Natalie had even conned Devlin into bringing her despite her doctor’s orders to stay in bed as much as possible. There were no kids with any of them and I was relieved only because I didn’t want to subject any of them to the craziness that was taking place outside.
Dallas and her big stomach pushed through the crowd to get to me, and Shane eased his hold just enough to let my best friend hug me. “How are you?” she whispered at my ear.
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I told her honestly. “I’m…numb.”
“It’s going to be okay,” she promised as she pulled back enough to give me one of her amazing smiles, making her dimple pop at me. “We’re all here for you, Harp. You aren’t alone in this, sweetie.”
Tears choked me and all I could do was nod.
Dallas moved back and Linc was quick to take her
place, but his strong arms pulled me completely away from Shane as he held on to me tight. “I’m sorry, Harper. So damn sorry.”
I buried my face in his hard chest, absorbing the love this man—who was more my brother than my friend—had to offer. I clung to him just as hard as I had Shane over the past week and let a few tears fall. There were only three sets of arms who could make me feel as safe as Linc’s did and they were all standing close, ready to catch me if I looked like I was going to fall.
Eventually we had to move. It was expected of me to circulate before the service started. Shane remained glued to my side, the one to speak to those that needed acknowledged because I could barely function enough to nod when it was appropriate. One person after another offered their condolences and I gave them a smile—a smile that I could only guess looked half manic from the weird looks I kept receiving in return.
Finally, it was time for the service to start and I took my place with Shane, Cecil and Linc at the front of the church. It was only then that I let my gaze go to the casket. It was open and I could see Todd’s face from where I was sitting. The mortician had worked his own kind of magic on my father. He no longer looked yellow from the jaundice, but practically glowed. From where I sat it looked almost as if he were sleeping.
The minister was halfway through when I heard the heavy doors to the church open and close but didn’t bother to turn to see who had left or arrived. My eyes remained glued to the man in the casket. When his image started to blur I realized I’d begun to cry and turned my head into Shane’s shoulder, hiding away from the pain burning in my chest as I held back my sobs.
Soft hands touched my back from the pew behind me and I recognized them both. Dallas’s touch was firmer while Lana’s was more gentle. I loved them both for their support right then, but it didn’t do anything to ease the tightness in my throat or chest. It didn’t matter what kind of a relationship I’d once had with Todd Jones. Right then, I was a daughter grieving the loss of her father, and the pain went soul deep.
I zoned out for the rest of the service. The next time I blinked and looked around my surroundings it was to find myself seated in a folding metal chair covered in a black sheet tied with a red bow by Todd’s grave, everyone from the church crowded around me. I didn’t know when I’d gotten there or even how. My mind was a blank void.
One of Shane’s hands was on my left shoulder, another hand—Linc’s—was on my right. Dallas sat beside me, her stomach pressed into my side as she stroked her fingers through my hair. Natalie sat beside her, her hands rubbing over her belly while Devlin crouched down next to her, watching her closely rather than what was going on around them.
No one was speaking except for the minister who was doing the last prayer. There was a whirling sound and I realized Todd’s casket was slowly being lowered into the ground. I bit my lip as a fresh slash of pain pierced my heart and I lowered my eyes to my lap. It felt surreal. This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening.
Please, tell me it isn’t happening.
But it was and I felt broken. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted more time. I wanted more of those last few hours I’d had with my father before he’d passed on. I wanted more ‘I love yous’ from the man I’d never gotten them from before. I wanted…so many things. Knowing that I wouldn’t get them, that it was all too late to hope for, my heart cracked open and I was helpless to stop the sob that bubbled up out of me.
A new hand touched my back and I felt Shane and Linc stiffen behind me, their holds on my shoulders tightening almost painfully for a moment. I didn’t have the energy to turn to see who the newcomer was, couldn’t have cared less who it might have been. All I could focus on was the pain in my chest—in my fucking heart—and the loss that was flooding through me like a tsunami, drowning me in grief.
One more hour, I kept reminding myself. One more hour and then I could take her away from all of this. One more hour and then we would be on the private plane Cecil had made ready for our use and I’d have Harper on the other side of the world. There would be no more prying eyes. No flashing cameras. No godsdamn stalker.
My wife would be safe and away from the shit storm that had come in like a fucking tornado and tossed our life upside down.
The past week had been a clusterfuck of the worst proportions. Harper hadn’t been aware of anything going on around her and I wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. She had no idea of the latest sick shit that psychotic bitch had thrown at her. At us.
I was still trying to wrap my mind around it myself.
Was it true?
How destroyed would Harper be if it was?
Two days after Todd Jones had died, I’d gotten a surprise when I’d walked down our driveway to collect our mail from the box. I’d been thumbing through the junk mail, bills, and magazines when I’d found a thick envelope with no return address on it. It was addressed to Harper, and the handwriting was a pretty cursive but I didn’t recognize it. A sick feeling had tightened in my gut as I’d carefully opened the piece of mail.
The contents of that letter still haunted me. Not because of what it said about me, but because I didn’t know how it was going to affect Harper once she found out about it. There was no way to prove it was true or not, but that didn’t matter. That it was even a possibility would destroy her.
I didn’t want to tell her. Wished I could keep it from her for the rest of our lives, but if I didn’t, I knew she would find out about it from someone else and then… Then who knew what she would think or how she would react. Would she hate me?
Even as that thought was going through my mind, my father-in-law was being lowered into the ground so the person who stepped up between me and Linc caught me off guard. Turning my head, I met the gaze of Monica Jones Calloway—at least I thought it was her. She wasn’t dressed in her normal eye-catching designer outfit, but a simple black dress. The usual gallon of makeup was nowhere in sight. Her face was completely bare except for the pain in her eyes.
Seeing her like that, especially with the pain in her eyes, caught me off guard. I wanted to say something. Call her out and make her disappear before Harper had to come face to face with her bitch of a mother, but I didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to this woman. Usually that was exactly what she wanted, the attention whore. Right then, however, with that haunting look on her face, I didn’t think she was there for the attention.
I kept my mouth shut, but my eyes remained on Monica’s hand as she touched her daughter almost lovingly.
Moments later the minister was ending the last prayer and thanking everyone for coming. I pushed Monica’s hand away from Harper, unable to handle her touching my wife for a second longer. No matter what her eyes had said to me, I didn’t trust Monica and didn’t want Harper to have to deal with her mother’s BS on top of everything else.
The minister began to move away, talking to one or two people. Dallas turned in her chair, having been so tuned in to Harper that she hadn’t yet noticed the enemy was among us. Sky-blue eyes turned glacier when she spotted Monica standing between me and Linc, then she quickly started looking around, in search of something—or someone.
That’s when it hit me. Ariana. Where was Harper’s stepsister? The not-so-beautiful Ariana was nowhere in sight and that was just all kinds of wrong. Monica and Ariana rarely went anywhere without each other. It was like the two evil bitches were attached at the fucking hip. If Monica was there without Ariana, then maybe she was actually there to offer her daughter comfort.
I wasn’t going to hold my breath.
Dallas turned her gaze back to me. “Get her out of here,” she mouthed and I nodded.
Bending, I scooped Harper into my arms. I didn’t even know if she remembered me carrying her from the church to the limo and then to the graveside earlier. She’d been out of it. I hadn’t known if it was a good thing or a bad one. She’d clocked out and gone inside hersel
f, and I’d almost been thankful for it, but at the same time it had scared the fuck out of me.
Her arms wrapped around my neck automatically, her head resting on my shoulder as she buried her face in my neck when I turned to carry her back to the limo. Monica moved to stand in front of me, her eyes almost beseeching as she lifted a hand to touch Harper. I took a step back, glaring at her and shaking my head. Behind her, Cecil grasped her arm firmly and turned her to face him. He said something I didn’t hear and Monica’s shoulders dropped.
I didn’t have time to wonder what he had said to her and I didn’t give a damn anyway. I tucked my wife closer and headed toward the waiting limo where Theo was already holding the door open for me. Peterson was close behind me and helped me in with her still in my arms. She hadn’t spoken, hadn’t so much as whimpered and I was starting to worry about her. Had she gone catatonic on me?
The door closed behind us, shutting us in and offering the first moment of personal time since we’d left the house that morning. “Beautiful,” I whispered and rearranged her so I could see her face better. Tears were pouring down her face and each one was like a sharp slice to my gut. Damn it. All I wanted was to make her pain go away, but I knew I couldn’t offer her that. It seemed like I only added to it lately.
I would only keep adding to it.
Having to witness her in so much pain brought tears to my own eyes, but I didn’t try to hide them as I lowered my head and brushed my lips over hers. I sat there, just kissing her softly for several long minutes. Her cold fingers moved from around my neck and into my hair and I nearly breathed a sigh of relief. More tears spilled from my eyes as I deepened the kiss and she let me inside her delicious mouth.
I let the kiss go on for a little longer before pulling back and pressing my forehead to hers. I knew better than to ask if she was okay. She wasn’t and I knew she would lie and tell me she was just to try and make me feel better. I didn’t want to feel better. “Ready for three weeks of peace?” I asked instead.