“How is he?” Gabriel’s long strides were nearly impossible to keep up with, and racing through hospitals wasn’t what her heels had been designed for. They skidded to a stop next to a tiny gray-headed lady, seated next to a window. She looked up at him, and Gabriel’s hand slid out of Holly’s.
He sank to sit on his heels, putting both hands on the woman’s arms. Then he knelt for real and gathered his mother to him. Watching the scene, Holly wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the chill of where they were and what was happening.
A moment slipped into the next. When he pulled back, the lady wiped her eyes.
“Have the doctors been out?” he asked. “Do you know anything?”
Slowly she shook her head. “They just told me to wait here.” Her gaze searched his. “They told me not to come back there, that they would do everything they could.”
“Okay.” It was clear he was trying to comfort her, but with little to go on, that was difficult. “When did it happen? Were you at home?”
“He went out in the garage. He was just going to get a screwdriver to fix my can opener.” Sobs overtook her as all pretense at being strong crumbled. “I don’t know how long he was out there. I don’t know. All of a sudden I thought he’d been gone a long time. I didn’t know…” She looked at Gabriel in utter desperation. “I would’ve gone looking sooner had I known.”
“No, Mama. No.” He gathered her into his arms again. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t.” His gaze floated up to Holly pleading for her to do something.
But what could she do? What could anyone do? The question drove into her heart as his gaze fell into the effort of comforting his grieving, frightened mother. Still, the beseeching of his spirit pulled her toward them. Not knowing what else to do, she stepped over and sat in the chair on the other side of his mother. Gently she put her hand on the lady’s shoulder. She was so frail, so tiny. Her shoulders felt like mere bones. Holly had never felt so helpless, so utterly devoid of any way to make one ounce of difference in this woman’s life, much less in the life of her son.
“God, please,” she said softly, the words coming out of the depths of her own helplessness, “we need You. We need You, Lord.”
Gabriel’s hand came up and caught hers. “God, please be with Dad. Hold Him in Your hands. Be with him, Lord.”
The voice yanked all three of them upright. From the floor in front of his mother, Gabriel stood. The doctor had stopped not three feet from them. Gabriel’s mother got to her feet, and Gabriel reached over to support her.
Broken hope filled her eyes and voice. “How… how is he?”
The doctor looked first to Gabriel, then to Holly, then to the frail lady in front of him. His gaze fell in apology. “Ma’am, I’m sorry…”
“No! Oh, God, no.”T
The wail shrieked through Holly who felt the weight of the lady falling and reacted to it. She caught her with all the strength she could muster.
“No. He can’t… I’m not… He was just there. He was going to get a screwdriver.”
Holly followed his lead as Gabriel sat his mother in the chair. Then she stepped back helplessly as he tried to calm her. A moment and Holly looked at the doctor, trying to figure out what she should do. Should she ask? Was that her place? Then she realized it should be Gabriel dealing with this part. So, knowing this was going to require both of them working as a team, she sat down, and with no real words told Gabriel she would take care of his mother. There was a numbness to his movements as he transferred his mother to her, and she was as worried for him as for the lady now in her arms. Gently she let the bowed and quaking shoulders lean into her. She nodded to him and bent her head over the grieving woman, gathering her in.
Gabriel stood, and although Holly knew his own grief was overwhelming, he stoically stepped away from them to converse with the doctor.
“God,” Holly begged silently, “we need You here. Please. We need You. Gabriel needs You. I need You. How can this be happening?” Questions. Thoughts. Memories. They raced through her in no definite patterns. Gabriel’s dad was gone. Gone. He was here, and now he was gone. Trying to get her mind around that concept was impossible. She’d just seen him earlier in the afternoon giving orders, making sure everything was perfect. Now it was, and he was gone.
“Shh,” she soothed the lady still quaking in her arms. She bent her lips to the lady’s hairspray stiff hair, wishing she could do more. Running her hand up and down the lady’s back, she could think of nothing else to do for her. Everything seemed pathetically inconsequential.
And then, Gabriel was standing in front of her again. Her gaze caught his shoes just as her spirit caught his presence. His hands were on his hips, and suddenly he looked very tired. It was truly amazing how quickly he’d gone from gorgeous to haggard. He stood for a moment more looking down at them, pushed his fingers through his hair in thought, and then, gathering himself, he sat on his heels in front of his mother. “Mama.”
The tenderness of the word ripped into Holly. It was clear he was fighting his own overwhelming grief as he reached out and put his hand on the older woman’s shoulder.
He tilted his head slightly. “Mama? The doctor said he went peacefully. It was over very fast.” The words were tearing him apart, but he said them just the same. “He was gone before they got there. He didn’t suffer.”
Holly began to wonder who he was trying to convince and comfort—his mother or himself. Her heart went out to him, trying so hard even as his own heart split in two. Then she felt the nodding, and her gaze fell from him to his mother. He was holding her hands now, speaking right to her although she never really looked up.
“The doctor asked if you wanted something… something to help you sleep tonight. He can prescribe something if you want.”
The faded eyes came up and gazed numbly at her son. “I think that would be good.”
The tiny house was quiet. Holly stood, finishing up the dishes in the sink. The electric can opener still lay forlornly on the cabinet, untouched. She tried not to think about it, focusing instead on the fact that the last thing they needed was to be worried about dishes the next morning. She could do nothing to really help them, so she did the only thing she could find to do.
In the doorway, Gabriel appeared, not stepping into the room. Instead he leaned on the doorframe watching her. When she looked over at him, his eyes were blank and filled with exhaustion. The blinks were slow and heavy. His hands were in his pockets, and for a long moment he didn’t move. “She’s asleep.”
Holly looked at him, scared for him, for what came next. “Good.” She let her gaze stay on him. What to say to take the grief away wouldn’t come.
“Thanks,” he finally said, the word barely making it to her.
The overwhelming thought that somehow she should’ve done more knocked into her. “For what?”
A wave of sadness washed through his eyes. “For being there.”
One look and she left the dishwater. Stepping to him, she tilted her head and smiled sadly as her gaze searched his. What it found was fear, exhaustion, and pain so deep there seemed no bottom. No words came as she simply stepped to him and put her arms around him. He caught hold of her like a drowning man in a riptide. Her arms arched up and over his shoulders, gathering him to her, pulling his head down onto her shoulder.
She felt his tears although he didn’t make even a single sound. Time ceased to be as they simply held each other, feeling everything they hadn’t dared to in the past few hours.
“He’s in a better place,” Gabriel finally said, wiping his eyes as he pulled back from her. “He is.”
Holly nodded in agreement although his father’s peace was doing nothing to assuage the anguish his family was in. Another moment and Gabriel let out a hard breath. He shook his head as stone-seriousness dropped to his face. He scratched his head and tried to look at her, which didn’t really work.
“They’re going to take the body to Graham’s Funeral Home tomorrow.” The fight to deal only in details was evident. “They’d already made the arrangements. I think Dad did it the last time, so we wouldn’t have to worry about it if…” Gabriel stopped. “I’m sure Mom will want to meet with Father Monihan in the morning after Mass. They probably have that whole thing planned too for all I know.”
The weight of life suddenly became too much, and he grabbed for a chair in the kitchen. Holly watched helplessly as he collapsed there, putting his head into his hands.
“Oh, God, how can he just be gone like that? How? God, this isn’t fair. He had so much more to do, so many people counting on him.”
Knowing it was all she could do, she knelt in front of him. Her love was going to have to be enough. It was all she had. “He loved you, Gabriel. He loved you so much.”
Pain etched deep on his face and in his eyes. “He would’ve loved you too.”
Once more she gathered him into her arms. “We’re going to get through this. I promise. Okay? You’re not alone. I’m right here.” And at that moment, the assurance was as much for her as it was for him.
The next morning the pickup made its way slowly up the driveway toward the mansion. Holly, still in her dress from the night before, sat between his mother and him. She didn’t touch him, didn’t even reach out for his hand, but he was glad she was there just the same. At the apex of the circle drive, Gabe put the pickup in park and reached for his door handle. Wordlessly, he climbed out and then offered her his hand as she slid out.
When she was toe-to-toe with him, she willed his eyes to hers, but he couldn’t look up.
“Call me, okay?” she asked softly. “I want to know.”
He simply nodded, not trusting his voice. She reached out for him then, and he gathered her into his arms. Now he knew for sure, it wasn’t the dress or the movie star quality that made him love her, it was her amazing ability to make him feel like everything would be all right even when life was falling apart around him. He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to capture that feeling for one more moment. Then reluctantly he released her. She stepped back, tears glinting in her eyes.
Her gaze was somber. “I’m right here. Okay?”
Again, he nodded. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell her, it was just that he couldn’t trust himself. Moving to the side, she let him get back into the pickup. With a slight wave in her direction, he put it in reverse and backed away. She was still standing there, watching him go as he drove out of the gate.
“Oh, God, be with them,” Holly whispered. The prayers flowed through her as she turned to climb the steps. She let herself in quietly. Gabriel had called Rosa last night when they got home. The maid, who apparently was a good friend of his parents, had shown up with a huge pan of rolls for them this morning. So it was pretty certain that anyone who wanted to know here already did.
Holly tried to push Rosa’s coolness toward her during the brief visit from her consciousness. It wasn’t outright hostility, but it wasn’t acceptance either. Although she was warm and consoling to Gabriel and his mother, there was no mistaking the double-take she did that Holly was still there. That was okay. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. What mattered was that she was there for Gabriel when he needed her.
“Holly?” Her mother’s voice from the sitting room, startled her so badly she tripped on the first step.
“Could you come here for a minute?”
She was too exhausted to summon any angelic help. In fact, she never even thought about needing any. She simply walked to the sitting room door. “Yes?”
One long disapproving look trailed down her clothes.
Holly put her hand up to her shoulder and swallowed hard, wishing she had more brain cells left at her disposal. “Umm, Gabriel’s dad…”
“I know. We heard.” The wave dismissed that issue completely. Her mother walked to the table with the plants. She picked up the watering can and did a passing job of watering the plants there. “I guess you’ve notice we’re not gone.”
Yes, she had noticed although for some reason she hadn’t remembered they were leaving. Reality seemed so very far away she really couldn’t see it at the moment.
“Luke wanted to stay for the funeral.”
“Oh.” Holly nodded, uncomprehendingly.
“So, I guess you’re happy then.”
Happy? It was the last word to describe her feelings at the moment. “Why would I be happy?”
Her mother dripped with sarcastic disbelief at the question. “Well, you ruined our wedding, and now you’ve ruined our honeymoon too.”
“Ruined…” The word, meant to slice her to ribbons, went through the exhaustion, grief, and numbness meeting nothing. “I didn’t ruin anything. Gabriel needed me.”
“Gabriel. Gabriel. Gabriel. Let me explain something about Gabriel. Gabriel is a guy. A boy really. He will use you as long as it suits him or until you are no longer needed, and then he will discard you for a newer model.” Her laugh bordered on sadistic. “You think he’s in love with you? You think he cares about you? Get real, Holly. He’s using you, and as soon as he gets enough of what he wants, he will be gone.”
“That’s not true. Gabriel’s not like that.”
“Oh, my. Open your eyes, Darling. They’re all like that, but the poor ones are worse. At least the rich ones only want your body. The poor ones want your body and your money.”
Like a whip hitting its mark, the words tore at her spirit, ripping the new fabric of it with cruel precision. Ache reached up and grabbed her tight and hard. She wanted to run, but to where would she run? Worse, this time she couldn’t run. Gabriel needed her too much, and she wasn’t about to add to his burdens by taking off.
“I’m going to my room,” she said, letting the numbness overtake her again. She needed to talk to someone, but not like this. She turned on her heel and ran smack into Luke.
“I thought I heard you come in.” He put his hands on her arms and held her out so he could look at her. “How are Gabriel and his mother?”
Holly nodded, the events piling onto her so that she might crack at any moment. The longer he held her like that, the harder it became to hold it all back. She squeezed her eyes closed, willing the tears away, but they were too heavy.
“Oh, sweetheart.” He pulled her into his arms, and the flood of tears that had been building for 12 hours burst through its dam. They came, spilling over her eyelashes in torrents she had no control over. The helplessness, the exhaustion, the grief, the fear. It all came flowing out. Had she been able to think, she would have known how dangerous this was, but she couldn’t think. It hurt too much.
It took more than a minute for her to pull herself together enough to step back and wipe her eyes.
“You’re exhausted,” Luke said, looking at her with sympathy. “Why don’t you go on up and lie down? We’ll come get you if he calls.”
Holly nodded, her system in shock from all the hits it had taken. With not even a backward glance, she walked out, climbed the stairs, and went to her room. At her mirror, she gazed at the shadow of herself looking back. Her hair, now down, was a wreck. The dress was hopelessly wrinkled. She’d wanted last night to be so perfect, and it was for one flash of a moment.
Pushing everything that had happened since away, she went to the bathroom, drew a bath, and climbed into the warm water. She let her mind drift through that one moment of being in his arms, swaying together. His gaze searching hers. Had it even really happened? Maybe she had dreamt the whole thing. Maybe she had misread the desire in his eyes.
Dark doubts clouded over her mind as her mother’s words cut through the memories. The words weren’t true, but they rang in her head like an unwanted bell just the same. Did her mother think that of even Luke? Luke, who had been so wonderful to them? It seemed utterly incomprehensible, and yet it was true. Holly knew it to be true. Luke was a rung on a ladder, and one day her mother would leave him behind as well.
Staring into a future that had no solidity, Holly’s heart panged forward. And when Luke was gone, what then? If she couldn’t come back here… If Gabriel finished school and moved on…? If her mother changed course again… then what?
The water had grown tepid, and her mind was shutting down. Sleeping on a rock hard couch in a satin dress had done nothing for REM sleep. She pulled herself out of the tub, grabbed her robe from the hook, and padded out to the bed. Thinking she would just lay down for a minute or two, she collapsed into the pillows. Sleep drifted over her, but it was laced with ugly thoughts and terrifying visions of a future she couldn’t really see.
Gabe didn’t want to, but he’d promised to call her. So when they made it back from taking his father’s best suit to the funeral home, he picked up the kitchen phone and placed the call. One ring. Two.
He swung the receiver under his mouth. “Umm, Rosa? Is Holly there?”
“Holly? Yes, I believe so. Just a minute.” There was the noise of the phone knocking into the cabinet. In the background he could hear the voices and just barely make out what they were saying. Something about Holly taking a nap and to tell them she’d call them back. Then Rosa was back. “Holly can’t come to the phone right now. Could I take a message?”
He thought about not bothering but decided against that. “Yeah, can you tell her Gabe called?”
“I’ll tell her.” Rosa paused. “Is your mother there?”
“Oh, uh, yes, Ma’am,” he said, snapping back into son mode.
“May I speak with her?”
Gabe took the phone to his mother who was sitting in the chair, going through old pictures for the newspaper. He held out the phone. “It’s Rosa.”
She nodded and took the phone. He really didn’t want to be in the middle of that conversation, so he ducked out and went to his room. Holly was sleeping. That was good. She needed some rest. He did too, but he was afraid if he ever went to sleep, he might never make it back up again. They were supposed to be at the funeral home at 5:30 for the wake service and procession to the church. The funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. the following morning.
His mother’s sister and brother were on their way from down south, and once they arrived, it would be wall-to-wall mourners. He fought off the overwhelm. If he could just talk to her, hear her voice, hold her hand, he knew he could get through this. But without her, life looked very cold and immensely lonely.
He picked out his clothes and went to take a shower. Maybe that would wake him up. He yawned even as he closed the door and stood at the mirror. He looked worse than he felt, and that was saying something. He ran his hand over the dark stubble on his jaw. It was going to take a miracle to get himself cleaned up and ready for the coming few hours. And to top it all off, he could hardly keep his eyes open. Still, he had to. This wasn’t something he could just duck out of. It was time to step up and be a man.
What woke her up, Holly didn’t really know. It wasn’t a sound so much as a feeling. It jolted her from her sleep, wobbling her senses when she sat straight up. She looked at her clock. 4:40. With a yank, she pulled the covers from her feet and raced outside heedless of being only in her robe. She ran down the stairs, looking for anyone who might know if he had called.
In the kitchen, she found not Rosa but a young lady almost her own age. She pulled the robe closer to her. “Umm, hello. Is Mr. or Mrs. Teracini here?”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry, Ma’am. They went out.”
Holly put her hand to her hair. “Where’s Rosa?”
“She had a wake service to go to.”
The words yanked Holly’s world into chaos. “Is there… was there… do I have a message?”
“Oh, yes. I almost forgot.” The young lady handed over a slip of paper.
One look and Holly needed no more. She almost wiped out on her way back up the stairs. Rosa was headed to a wake service. That could mean only one thing. In one motion she had the phone open and was dialing the number. She didn’t even wait for him to pick up before going into her closet and rifling through the clothes.
“Hello?” a voice she didn’t recognize said. It was nearly drowned out by the myriad of voices behind it.
“Uh, yes, is Gabriel there?” With one hand she yanked a smoke-colored blouse off a hanger.
“Just a minute.”
Tossing the blouse over her shoulder, she pushed the clothes one way and then the other. Where was that black skirt?
“Gabriel, oh, thank goodness you’re still there. This is Holly.”
“Hey, I was beginning to think you weren’t going to call.”
“Yeah, I just woke up.” Hopping she tried to get both legs into the skirt. “Did I hear right? Is the wake service tonight?”
“Yeah, we’re about to head out to the funeral home. We’re supposed to be there at 5:30.”
She tossed shoes out of the closet until she came to the ones she wanted. “Are you leaving right now?”
“We’re about to.”
“Can you come get me?” The task of buttoning the blouse while carrying on a conversation proved too much. She dropped the phone. With one scoop she had it again. “Sorry. Dropped the phone.”
“You know, you really don’t have to come. I’ll understand.” He sounded so tired.
“No, I’ll be ready just stop by and get me.” Forgetting the blouse for now, she raced to the sink. The mirror told a sad tale. “I’ve got to go.”
“See you in a bit.” With that she hung up. “Oh, Holy Spirit, help.”
Gabe wasn’t at all sure what shape she would be in when he pulled up. He would hate to be late, and if she wasn’t ready… However, he hadn’t even gone all the way through that thought when she came racing out the door and down the steps. On full-tilt, she jumped into the pickup. His eyebrows reached for the ceiling. “Are you okay?”
“Hey, this is what ten minutes to get ready will get you.” She was still fighting with one shoe on the floorboard. Finally securing it, she sat back. “You should’ve had them wake me up.”
Amusement crowded through even the exhaustion. “And miss this show? Not on your life.” A real smile played through his heart. “You look beautiful.”
“Nice try. I look like the creature.” She finger brushed her hair twice. “But I’ll let it slide this time.”
He pulled out of the driveway and to the gate. There, Fredrico held up a hand to stop them. Gabe rolled down his window.
“Hey, man,” Fredrico said, holding out his hand. “Sorry about your dad.”
“Thanks,” Gabe said with a nod.
“Just wanted you to know, I thought he was a really great guy.”
Again Gabe nodded. “Thanks.” And once again they were rolling.
He glanced across the seat at her. She was still raking her fingers through her hair, which looked fine to him but was obviously stressing her out.
“You look fine,” he said, trying to be helpful.
“Let me guess,” she said, raking and re-raking, “your family’s going to be there.”
“Dad’s three brothers, their families. Mom’s brother and sister and their families.”
“Terrific.” She ducked her head and with both hands in her hair flipped it up. She reached for the visor.
But the warning was too late. Ten years of dust and debris fell in a cloud of dust over her. Sputtering, she coughed, waving her hand to get herself through it. “Oh, don’t?” She looked at him and coughed again. “I guess that would mean, ‘Holly, don’t do that. That visor-thingy is going to cover you in garden ash.’” She held out her hands in helplessness although she wasn’t really mad. He could tell by her voice.
He laughed. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Uh-huh.” She looked down at herself in resignation. “Terrific. Some great first impression I’m going to make.” Brushing at her skirt, she sent a cloud of dust into the air.
It was truly amazing that she couldn’t see what he did. Even covered with dust, minimal make-up, and a blouse that wasn’t on quite straight, she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
“Tell you what,” he said, reaching for her hand. “I’ll tell them you’ve been out weeding the garden with me. The way I always look, they’ll understand completely.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “Don’t worry about it, K? You look fine.”
It was clear she wanted to protest, but she chose not to. She squinted into the dust-covered mirror on the visor and tried again with her hair. “I just wish I had a brush and some hairspray.”
“Hey,” he said gently, “you’re beautiful.” He spun the wheel and pulled into the parking lot and then into a space. “This is it.”
“Oh, gosh. What time is it?” Holly asked as if it was one word.
Gabe looked at his watch. “5:20. Why?”
“Okay. I’ll meet you in there.” And with that, she was out of the pickup.
He shook his head. What could she possibly do in five minutes? He pushed out of his side and started up the walk. The knot of people by the doors turned to him, and a hush fell over them.
“Gabe, buddy.” His cousin Joe caught him in a hug. “We’re so sorry.”
“Yeah,” he said, and when he stepped back, he was distinctly aware of her absence. It would’ve been nice to have a hand to hold at that moment.
“I don’t believe this.” Holly pulled cosmetics from her purse. There had to be a brush in there somewhere.
“Need something?” a Hispanic lady about a decade older than her asked as she watched Holly’s meltdown from the mirror at the other sink.
“Ugh. Hair spray and a brush would be really good right now. I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself out there.”
“Oh, well, here.” In a second the tiny foldable hairbrush was in her hand.
Stunned, she looked at it and then at the lady gratefully. “Oh, wow. Thanks.” She ran it through her hair, thanking Heaven for sending her an angel. “You wouldn’t have a ponytail holder in there, would you?”
“You’re in luck.” The lady held up a black one.
“Oh, fabulous. You are a life-saver. You know that?” With a quick motion she had her hair pulled back. She gazed in the mirror as she readjusted her blouse and perfected her lipstick. Then she turned to the lady who was finishing up. “I’m Holly by the way.”
“Allise. I’m Carlos’s niece.”
Carlos? Carlos? “Oh, right.” Holly stuck her hand out. “Nice to meet you, Allise. Well, I’d better get in there. Thanks again.”
With a breath to calm herself, Holly opened the door of the ladies room and stepped out. The number of people milling about was truly amazing. How was she ever going to find Gabriel in this? She walked quietly past and through a number of softly talking couples. It wasn’t until she chanced by the large double entrance way leading into the chapel that she spied him. He was up front, looking at the sprays of flowers, talking with someone next to him.
For a moment Holly shied back from going in there. This was crazy. What was she thinking? She’d never even been to a funeral save for her father’s when she was two, but she didn’t even remember that one. Her gaze traced back to the doors leading outside. What she wouldn’t have given to be able to run. But she couldn’t do that to Gabriel. Like it or not, she had to go in there. With effort, she retrained her gaze on the little chapel. A push and she was walking again, toward the front. The shiny gray casket was in the center. Its lid was opened, and there were people near it. Her heart slammed inside her, screaming at her not to take even one more step. However, she fought it back and forced herself to keep moving.
At the front, she walked up to him but only stopped and waited for him to notice. The prayers she sent up were to keep her standing there and not to let her completely freak out.
Just then Gabriel glanced back and noticed her standing there. His smile was muted as he reached for her. “Frank, I’d like you to meet Holly. Holly, this is my cousin, Frank.”
The man was taller than Gabriel and older, but the resemblance was definitely there. “Nice to meet you, Holly.”
She smiled, and was about to say something when the funeral director strode up to Gabriel.
“We’re ready,” he said, ducking closer.
Gabriel nodded, and with her hand in his, they walked over beside his mother. The crowd hushed on cue, and the funeral director said a few words about the procedure for the procession. Then he asked them to start for the cars. Holly felt all thumbs. Nothing she did seemed exactly right. She wished she had done this before. Even once would’ve been nice, so she would know what to do. However, the sad truth was she was flying with no instruments.
“I’ll ride with Ida,” his mother said, turning to them. Her tired smile drifted across Holly and sent her own discomfort scattering from her consciousness. “Nice to see you again, Holly.”
“You, too, Ma’am.”
Gabriel’s hand on hers steadied her, and she was glad for it. As his mother turned with the woman who must be her sister, Holly’s gaze took in all the people. She leaned in to Gabriel. “Are all these people your relatives?”
“Most of them, why?”
She couldn’t get it all into words at that moment, but the differences in their lives were undeniable. He had a thousand relatives. She had her mother. It wasn’t the time or the place, but the thought of what their wedding would look like flashed through her mind. His side, packed. Her side, three friends if she talked real hard. With that vision, it was hard not to fall right into a deep pit of insignificance right there.
The evening’s events slipped over him like a river over smooth rocks. There was the procession, the short service, standing by the casket, knowing it was his father and yet knowing also that it wasn’t. The muted conversations, the sympathetic hands brushing his back, hugs even. Still, it didn’t seem real. None of it. Not a single minute. Somehow even though he was there, it didn’t seem possible that it was all happening, that tomorrow morning he would be burying the man who had shaped and molded his life into something worth living.
Emotions were right under the surface, but Gabe made sure they never crested. He had to hold it together for his mother and in honor of his father. It was all but impossible, and yet, he knew he had to stay just on the surface and never dip below that. If he could do that, maybe, somehow, he would get through this.
When they pulled up to the mansion after the final meeting with the priest and the funeral director, he put the pickup in park and heaved a sigh. Her hand was still in his as it had been the whole night. He didn’t want to think about how he would’ve made it without her.
From the passenger’s seat, Holly looked over at him. “You’re wiped. I’d better let you get home.”
“Yeah,” he said, laying his head back on the seat, but he didn’t let go of her hand. He didn’t want her to leave just yet. More truthfully, he didn’t want her to leave ever, but for now he would take the next few minutes.
Although his eyes were closed, he heard the concern in her voice. “Did you get any sleep today?”
“Sleep? What’s that?”
She shook her head. “You are taking Tuesday off, right?”
Tuesday. He hadn’t even thought that far ahead. “I don’t know. I’m sure there’ll be something that needs done. Those lights in the back need taken down, and I don’t know if anyone even got the chairs picked up.”
“No,” Holly said, firmly. “You are taking Tuesday off. You need sleep.”
He let his head fall to the side as he looked at her, still unable to keep his eyelids from falling closed. She was so beautiful.
Seriousness draped her face. “I’ll clear it with Luke, but you’re staying home. You got that?”
He was too tired to argue. In fact, it felt so good being here, like this, with her, falling asleep right now was a real possibility. There was nothing for a minute as his senses let go of reality. He couldn’t have been out for five seconds, but the drop off was head-snapping. With a jerk he came awake.
“Go home.” Her hand brushed gently across his jaw. “And call me when you get there.”
Forcing his head up and his eyes open, he nodded. Then, looking at her sitting there, it was the most intense pull he’d ever felt. He didn’t know if it was because his defenses were trashed or because she was so beautiful or because he was so grateful to her or any one of a million other reasons. Whatever it was, it slid him slowly across the seat. His gaze snagged hers and refused to let go. He wanted her, and he was tired of denying it. “Holly…”
He reached for her through the graying darkness, wanting only to get closer to her and then closer still. He had turned all the way to her so that his advance was more like that of a hungry lion determined to devour its prey. “Holly…”
At the last possible second, he saw the panic in her eyes as she reached for the door handle. “I’ve got to go.” She slipped out of the pickup and into the night. “Call me so I know you made it home.” With that, she shut the door.
Stung, Gabe stopped the advance, let out a hard, angry breath, and retreated to behind the steering wheel. Calling himself every horrible name in the book, he watched her climb the stairs and disappear inside. He sighed and ran his hand over his eyes and down his face. She was right. This was all wrong. He was using his vulnerable moment to trap her into something they would both regret. Vowing to apologize when he saw her again, he shook his head to keep himself awake and backed out. She was right on that count too. He needed sleep. Days and days of sleep.
Holly fought to block out that look, that last, wild, I-have-to-have-this-or-I’ll-die pleading look in his eyes. Even six months ago she would’ve given him exactly what he was asking and although the regret would probably be there, she would’ve filed it away with all the other meaningless, one-night stands in which one or the other was simply looking to fill a void by killing a few hours.
But that life no longer held the allure it had once seemed to. Back then, she viewed sleeping with someone as the best way to get what they both wanted. Now, with him, she wanted so much more than that. And giving in for less cheapened it. He deserved more. He deserved her, all of her… if he wanted her.
The confusing questions and thoughts ran through her as she went to the kitchen to wait at the phone. She had never been so loved, and so why now did it feel so important to wait? Why now did she withhold what she had so freely given so many times before? The memory of Chase drifted through her, and breathing through it hurt.
Chase. He deserved better too. She sat down in the dark kitchen as her mind twisted around that time. She had thought he was her forever too. She had convinced him to sleep with her by telling him it was forever. And then… Then her whole world had been dumped upside down. The fact that she’d hurt him was indisputable, but as she sat rewinding through the memories, she realized it was her warped idea that she was in fact protecting him that ended her up in the backseat of Eddie Danillo’s car.
She could still see the look of horror and betrayal on Chase’s face. The horror. The hurt. The cut was deep, as deep as a cut can go. Yet she knew it was for the best, even at that moment, she knew it. He deserved better, and so did Gabriel. Better than a night in the front seat of a pickup. Better than having to prove something that shouldn’t have to be proven. Now, however, it wasn’t at all clear to her that he would think her leaving like that was for the best. Maybe he was mad, hurt by her leaving.
Doubts attacked her from all sides. The last thing she wanted to do was make him think she was leading him on or toying with him with no intentions of this going anywhere. She didn’t want him to get the idea that she wasn’t serious about this, that maybe for her it was a summer thing which would end with her getting on a plane in a month.
That thought threatened to take the blocks right out from under her. One month. The phone rang, jangling through the thoughts. She jumped up and snatched it off the wall. “Hello?”
“Hey.” He sounded so tired. It drilled through her.
“Hey. You made it, huh?”
“Okay.” She wanted to ask him, wanted to talk about it, but that was selfish. There would be time later. “Get some sleep. I’ll be ready at 8:30.”
“You really want to go?”
“I’ll be ready.”
“Gabriel,” she said softly. “Get some sleep. I’ll be praying for you.”
He didn’t really say okay or good night or even good-bye, but she heard them all anyway.
“Goodnight,” she said.
“Yeah.” And he was gone.
As she hung up the phone, the prayers began. “God, please be with Gabriel. He needs Your strength. Please hold him, please lift him up, tie him to a support. He needs that. Amen.”
The next morning her alarm went off as it always did on Monday mornings at 6:30. Unfortunately this wasn’t like any of the other Mondays she had spent in Napa. For a long minute she lay there and considered simply rolling over and going back to sleep. He wouldn’t be in the garden this morning. But then the thought of why he wouldn’t be in the garden slipped into her mind.
Determination to be his support came into her. She tossed off the covers and said the first prayer of the day. “God, be with us all today. Be with Gabriel and his mom. Be with me, and show me what to do, what to say and how to say it. Do this through me, plant the garden the way You want it to look. I’m here. Show me what to do.”
The lights. Why she thought of them, she couldn’t clearly tell, but they were what came into her mind. She dressed quickly in her jeans and sweatshirt. In minutes she was in the kitchen with the coffee in hand. The morning had only begun to show its head as it shrugged off the night. She went around and down to the gazebo.
The chairs were still up in neat rows. Lights were still draped everywhere. With a heave to settle the determination, she set her coffee cup on the walk, stepped off the concrete, and grabbed two chairs. “God, be with us today.” The words flowed freely from her. There was no real effort. She knew them by heart.
Details were the only things keeping Gabe going. Details like what tie to wear, what time he was supposed to be there, remembering to grab Grandpa Isaiah’s rosary from the drawer. Little things that in the whole general scheme of today didn’t really make a big difference, and yet as long as he thought about them, he didn’t have to think of the bigger issues of the day.
Truth be told, he hadn’t slept all that well. He’d graciously given his bed to two cousins from Oregon, and the egg crate on the hardwood floor was not as comfortable as it sounded. That was bad enough, but the thoughts of dragging Holly through this mess and not being who she needed him to be twined in and out of his dreams until he wasn’t sure what was real and what was simply shadows of things he had pushed aside in his hopes that this could ever work.
Awake wasn’t any better than asleep. He wondered if anything would ever be better again.
“Are you leaving already?” his mother asked with some degree of concern when he grabbed one of Aunt Ida’s famous breakfast burritos and headed for the door.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to pick up Holly. She doesn’t have a ride.”
The other family members in the kitchen fell into a hush.
His mother, across the room, sat, staring at him clearly making every effort not to get upset. “She can’t come with her mother?”
Gabriel caught the concerned look Aunt Ida sent to his mother from the other side of the table. It was impossible to miss, and it told him so much. Somehow he had thought the Holly-to-her-mother connection hadn’t been made. But obviously it had. He stood there, his mind scrambled and scrambling. What should he say? Should he defend Holly? Make some excuse for her mother? Or should he give in to his mother and let Holly fend for herself? After all, his mother was fragile right now, and the last thing he wanted was to make the load she was carrying heavier.
“Umm, well, I don’t know when the Teracini’s are coming,” he said. “And I told Holly I’d be there.” There was no winning in this situation.
“Oh,” his mother said in that tone that said ‘obviously whatever I want doesn’t matter to you.’
“But I could call her.” He was in the deep end with no idea which direction to swim. “If you want me to ride with you.”
The hush dropped another octave into utter silence.
“No, no,” her mother finally said, her words betraying their actual meaning. “If you told her you were going to pick her up…”
“I don’t have to.” Trapped. He was absolutely trapped. “I can stay here if you need me.”
“No, go.” She waved him out, the tears in her eyes. “Go.”
His heart broke as he nodded and turned. He didn’t want to make his mother cry, not today when she would have enough to cry about, but he’d promised Holly. Seeing no way not to break someone’s heart in this miserable situation, he fled out the door and to his pickup, knowing his standing in the family had taken a hard hit. It was this side of a mortal sin to choose anyone over your mother, and he’d just done that on the day she needed him the most.
The chairs were stacked against the fence. Four strings of lights were laid out in the gazebo. Holly would’ve put them away, but she wasn’t sure what to do with them. As promised, she was ready, and this time she even had her shoes on. She was standing at the front door, looking at her watch, wondering when he would be there when Luke came down the stairs.
“I guess you’re going with Gabriel.”
Holly looked back at him, wishing so many things about this situation were different. She let her gaze fall to the hardwood floor. “He’s coming at nine.”
Down the last step and three strides to her, Luke reached out and took her in his arms. His white business shirt felt stiff beneath her cheek, but she was grateful for the warmth of his hug. Then he pulled her back and looked at her with concern. “How are you?”
She gazed up at him, and it was impossible to be strong. Everything in her heart came spilling out. “I’m really worried about Gabriel and his mom. This is all happening so fast, and what happens afterward, you know? I mean Gabriel’s been going to school, but if his mom can’t make it on her own, what then? I don’t want him to have to quit school and give up on his dream, but how can he support her if he’s not here and not working? And he was so tired last night. He’s trying to be so strong for everybody else, but I know how hard this is for him.” She shook her head in desperation. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do for him, how to help him through this.”
“Do what you’re doing,” Luke said gently. “Just be there for him.”
When her gaze found his, she pleaded with him. “But that doesn’t feel like enough.”
There was the slightest of smiles on his strong features. “It will be. Trust me on that.”
The sound of the pickup on the driveway jumped both of their attentions that direction.
“We’ll be there in a little bit,” Luke said, and he gave her one more hug. “Now, go take care of Gabriel.”
Holly nodded, grateful for Luke’s stable presence. She grabbed her purse off the little table and headed out the door. In the driveway, Gabriel was just getting out of the pickup. Haggard. It was the first word that fell into her mind when she looked at him. He looked so tired and even more badly in need of a hug than she remembered. His gaze barely found hers, and even when it did, it fell instantly back to the ground at his feet. Rather than go to the passenger’s side, she walked right up to him.
There was no hesitancy. She simply lifted her arms and let his come around her. Holding him there, his arms tightening on her, she felt his sadness, his exhaustion. After a moment, the thought went through her to let go, but he was holding on for dear life. The question of who was there for him at this moment drifted through her. Others were surely trying, but it wasn’t the same. They were dealing with their own grief.
The vow that she would be here for him went through her. She ran her hand up and over the loose curls on his head, and she heard the sniff. “We’re going to get through this. Okay? I’m right here.”
He tightened the hug and nodded. Then with one more squeeze, he let her go and stepped back. Gut wrenching grief sliced through his eyes. No words were necessary as she climbed into the pickup and slid only to the middle. When he got in, she took hold of his hand with both of hers. She was here, and she wanted him to know that.
Gabriel was glad for her presence. It kept him standing, kept him from falling completely into the pit. They climbed the little hill at the parish building hand in hand. Several of his relatives greeted them, and he shook their hands. It was nice of them to be there, but it was better that she was. They went inside, and he raked his fingers through his hair, knowing he looked like a zombie, but hoping it wasn’t as bad as it felt.
Through the milling crowd they walked down to the little room where his father’s body was laid out for final viewing. His heart constricted at the thought. Pushing that away to concentrate on details, he wondered if his mother had made it. Part of him hoped not so he wouldn’t have to deal with that part of his life just yet. However, when they turned the corner into the room, there she was in the front row just as she had been the night before. Last night he had let Holly go so he could sit by his mother, but today, he didn’t want her to leave even for a moment. On the far side of the room was the casket flanked by candles and wreaths of fresh flowers.
He took a breath, trying to stabilize his heart because it was stopping and starting in no discernable rhythm. He hadn’t thought anyone would notice, but instantly he felt Holly’s gaze drift over his face. She tightened her grip on his hand. He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t need to. She knew.
It was time. He knew it to the depths of his being. It was time to say his final good-bye. How he would ever manage that, he had no idea. One more moment and it would be heaven before he saw his father again. One more breath and he was moving toward the casket, for no other reason than he knew he had to.
The others standing around parted to let him through. He felt the sympathy of their gazes. Most of them were older than he. All still had their parents. He was the first through this gate, and that just didn’t seem fair. Then as if he had been traveling his whole life to get to this one moment, he was standing at the casket gazing down at the face of the man he had fought with, learned from, loved.
There was a pastiness to his father’s face he didn’t remember. It didn’t look healthy and strong as it always had. It looked waxy and unnatural as if it wasn’t even the man he had known. Gabe stood there as a thousand memories of that face and those hands ran through his mind. The first time he’d ridden his bike. The last time they’d been in the shop together. Mowing, weeding, fixing, working. Together so much. And now it was over.
The red-padded kneeler next to the casket beckoned him down. He let go of her hand to lower himself onto it. He bent his head, realizing then that his father had taught him how to do even that. There were so many things he wanted to say, so many things he had thought he would get the chance to tell this man. His gaze came up, and as he took in the vision that he would never forget, a realization came over him.
This wasn’t his father. Yes, it was his father’s body. It was the face Gabriel had come to know as his father, but it wasn’t really his father. His father, the essence of his father was not here anymore. This body, this shell had died, but the essence, the spirit lived on. Overwhelming gratefulness for the life he had known trailed through him, touching his heart. The spirit had taught him so much, had seen him through his darkest hours, and even now, it was still alive—in his own heart it beat as it always had in the body now lying before him. That spirit of strength and hope and love. He shook his head slowly, knowing he could never be grateful enough for what this man had done for him.
It was then that he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he glanced back at her with a small smile. She stepped up beside him, and he leaned into her, his head resting on her stomach. She bent then, arching over him, gathering him in. He wished he’d had the chance to show his dad who she really was—not a spoiled little heiress but a beautiful, kind woman, full of grace and love.
“He loved you,” Holly whispered from above him.
Gabriel nodded. He knew that. “God’s taking him home.”
Holly nodded. “Maybe he’s getting a place ready for you and your mom up there.”
The laugh attacked him without warning. “Every project’s going to be on time from now on up there.”
“The lawns will never have looked better.”
Gabe sighed through the blur of tears. “Can you imagine his garden?”
Her hug on his shoulders tightened. “It’ll be the prettiest one ever.”
He nodded, overcome by the thought. “Do you think he’s letting God do any of it?”
“I think he’s learning.”
They stayed like that for a few more minutes, and then Gabriel knew it was time to let go. He closed his eyes. “God, take him home.” The thought was there, and he reached over and touched the hands, wrapped with the rosary. They were cold. Ice cold. And with that, he knew his father was truly gone.
He took a breath and stood. Holly backed up to give him room. He stepped over to get the holy water. With four snaps of the wrist, he blessed the body. Without thinking, he handed the silver handle to Holly. It was only when she glanced at him with concern that he remembered. She was new to this. Gently he lifted her hand, and together they made the sign of the cross with the holy water over the body.
He put the silver handle back into the little bucket, and when they turned, he put his arm around her. His mother still sat in the front row. Presumably she had seen it all although she wasn’t even looking at them now. Torn, his mind fought for what he should do. Then his gaze chanced to the clock 9:30. They would be coming any minute to head the short walk to the church.
He bent to Holly. “I’ll be right back.”
She nodded and let go of him.
In five strides he was in front of his mother. She seemed much smaller than she had even at the house earlier. There was a slump to her shoulders and care on her grief-stained face. He sat on his heels in front of her. “It’s almost time, Mama.”
When she turned them on him, her eyes pleaded with him to forestall the inevitable. Just a few more moments, not yet. Please, not yet.
He glanced up at the clock, wishing he didn’t have to, but knowing he did. “They’ll be here any minute.”
Finally she nodded, and his heart wrenched. As hard as it was for him to say good-bye, it would be worse for her. Gently he helped her to her feet, and together they crossed the room to the casket.
Holly faded off to the side, watching them. She had no idea how hard this must be for them. These three. They had been a team. Them against the world. And now the captain of their team was gone. At the casket Gabriel bent his head and body so as to talk softly with his mother. His arm was around her, and Holly knew how comforting that arm could be. As she watched, the priest entered from the other side and walked up to the casket, joining them. It was then that she saw the funeral directors come from the sides making their way up as well. Her breath snagged.
It had been so weird to see Mr. Cabrelos lying in that coffin. She had never seen a dead body. Even the night before, she had purposely not gone close. But now, to see them close the lid, that would be more than she could take. The priest spoke softly with Gabriel and his mother, and then he motioned the funeral directors forward. Gabriel stepped back with his mother still under his arm. Holly was glad he had forgotten she was even present. But then she caught the glance he shot behind him. Worry trounced through her. He was looking for someone. But who?
She looked around, wanting to help him find whomever he was searching for. Then, as the scene played out before her, she realized who that was. Her. Never would she have believed she would have the courage to do it, but she had made a promise to be there for him. She pushed forward from the wall, stepped through the quiet crowd, and sidled up next to him. Just as he had before, he grabbed onto her, turned his head onto hers, kissed her hair, and together they stood watching as the funeral directors turned in the beige satin cushioning, checked it a final time. And slowly closed the lid.
From Gabriel’s other side, his mother let out a small gasp. He reached over and hugged her to him as well. Then the woman who looked like her sister came to the other side of her. In what felt like seconds they were again walking, moving, first to back out of the way of the pall bearers and then following the closed casket out of the room, down the hall, and out into the bright summer sunshine.
The priest was praying, loudly. Intoning, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of darkness, I fear no evil for You are there with Your rod and staff to give me strength…”
Step for step, they walked together. The sound of shoes scraping concrete echoed through the somber crowd. As dismal as the moment was, Holly had the distinct impression that this was right where she was meant to be—by his side, his arm around her, walking through the valleys of life.
The service was a mix of her caring for him and him caring for his mother. Holly found the rhythm of being there for him when he needed her and letting him go when he needed to be there for others. Hold, support and let go. It was how life was meant to be between them.
It wasn’t until the graveyard that her life, her reality reasserted itself between them. The casket lay on the straps suspended over the grave. The priest had said the final blessing, and one-by-one people filed past them, giving them their condolences. At first, Holly felt somewhat out of place being in the front with him and his mother, but owing to the fact that he either had his arm around her or was clutching her hand, there wasn’t much other choice.
Fifty people or better had already filed past them, including many of the other workers at the mansion. As the crowd thinned, it was then that she saw them approaching, and oh-no flew into her mind. Mr. Teracini held her mother’s hand as they followed the line toward Gabriel’s mother. Had she been able to, Holly would’ve thrown herself bodily between them, vowing they would never get close.
As she watched helplessly, fear attacked her in droves. What would they say? What if her mother said something horrible? What if his mother said something horrible back? Inexorably, they came closer. There were so many ways this could go badly, it was impossible to see any way it could go well. Then as bad threatened to completely overwhelm good, she remembered the only weapon she possessed to ward off disaster.
Taking a breath to gather her courage, she gazed right onto the scene, seeing the unseeable. “Satan and all your minions, you must leave this place right now by the Blood of Jesus Christ,” she said under her breath but commandingly. “You are hereby banished to the throne of the Most High God to be dealt with there as He wills. Now be gone.”
Courage charged into her heart. She anchored her gaze on her mother, knowing if the demons were with anyone, that’s who they would be hovering around. “Satan,” she said, looking right at her mother who was seven people from the front of the line, “get away, right now. By the Blood of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave. Jesus and the Holy Angels of God flood the area with Your peace, Your strength, and Your Holy Presence. Banish any remaining demons from this place.”
And then her mother stepped up to his mother, and Holly sucked in a breath.
“Please accept my condolences,” her mother said, holding out her hand.
The acceptance was almost instant as Mrs. Cabrelos held out her hand. “Thank you for coming.”
Stepping from his mother to Gabriel, her mother held out her hand as behind her, Luke hugged Mrs. Cabrelos.
“Gabriel,” Holly’s mother said, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Holly’s gaze snagged on him. She knew his feelings about her mother, and yet there was none of that in his eyes. Instead, he smiled softly, gratefully. Somehow Holly hadn’t even realized her mother would follow the others right in front of her. They looked at each other for one moment, and Holly tried to smile. But there was nothing in her mother’s eyes—not hate, not love. Nothing. And then she stepped on.
It took a moment for Holly to collect herself. When she looked up, she found Luke standing there. Tears flooded through her as she looked at him. It took only that for him to gather her into his arms. “I’m sorry for your loss, sweetheart,” he said.
Holly nodded, soaking in the love and the hug, and then wiping her eyes, she stepped back. She sniffed the tears away. “Are y’all leaving?”
He nodded. “We’re taking off from here. We’ll be back Monday after next.”
She smiled and nodded slightly. “Have a safe trip.”
“We will.” He lowered his gaze at her. “You take care.”
He started out.
“Oh, Luke,” Holly called, snapping back to reality. He turned back to her. “Can Gabriel have a couple days off?”
Hearing the request, Gabe turned to them to protest.
Luke smiled. “Take as long as you need. We’ll work out the pay when I get back.”
Gabriel looked on the verge of a breakdown, but after a moment, he held out his hand. “Thank you, Sir.”
Luke shook his hand and then looked at Holly. “Take care of her.”
“Yes, Sir. I will.”
At the little meal afterward, Holly hardly tasted her food. Next to her Gabriel ate almost nothing. Holly couldn’t tell if that was from not being hungry or from all the people who came up to talk with him. After fighting the battle for a while, Gabriel abandoned it altogether when Frank came up.
“I think we’re going to take off,” the older man said.
“Oh, so soon?” Gabriel stood. “Well, thanks for coming.”
It was only then that Holly realized who the woman standing behind him was. Quickly Holly wiped her face and smiled at the woman. Allise. Holly stumbled to her feet, trying to get the chair out without falling over it. Once on her feet, she held out her hand. “My angel.”
Allise smiled and shook Holly’s hand. “It was only a hairbrush.”
Holly laughed. “And a hair tie. Don’t forget the hair tie.”
Gabriel looked at her with narrowed, confused brows.
“Allise saved me last night,” Holly said by way of explanation. “She came to my rescue in my hour of need.”
Still he didn’t look like he comprehended what she was telling him.
“So, you’re Holly,” Allise said, seeming to put the pieces together.
Frank backed up and put his hand on Allise’s back. “Didn’t I tell you? Gabe introduced us last night.”
It was strange to be there as a couple, but to not really be able to act like it.
Allise nodded. “Gabriel was the ring bearer in our wedding. He was the cutest little thing.”
Holly looked up at him, thinking not much had changed.
“Don’t start,” Gabriel said.
“He kept throwing the pillow up and catching it,” Allise continued.
Gabriel shook his head. “Oh, here we go.”
“I think that pillow still has the mud stain on it from you dropping it in the puddle.”
“Like that was my fault. You don’t put a white pillow in a three-year-old’s hands and expect him to understand, ‘Don’t get it dirty.’”
Frank laughed. “Gabe never was very good about staying clean.”
Holly joined them. “He still isn’t.”
“Hey, hello. Did I ask for this?” But Gabriel laughed just the same. As Holly looked at him, she was glad to see a faint glint back in his eyes.
“Well, we’d better take off.” Frank shook Gabriel’s hand and then Holly’s. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“You either,” Gabriel said, giving Allise a hug.
And then they drifted off.
“They’re nice,” Holly said.
“Yeah.” Before they could say any more, a steady stream of people came up, so that lunch was completely forgotten.
Holly did her best to stay in the background unless spoken to. She shook hands, accepted hugs, and thanked everyone for coming. She knew next to no one, but that didn’t seem to matter. They knew her. Whether that was good or bad she couldn’t tell.
When the others had gone, they went over to Gabriel’s mother. As much as Holly liked her, fear sprang up any time they had to talk to her.
“I’m going to take Holly home,” Gabriel said, her hand tucked in his as it had been most of the day.
“Oh.” His mother’s gaze still held only hurt and grief. “Well, don’t be long. We have to get the food taken care of.”
“Okay.” He leaned down and kissed her. “I won’t be long.”
Holly had no idea what the protocol for this situation was. Whatever it was, she was sure she would mess it up. She tried to lean in for a hug, but it was more of a touch. “Bye.”
And then they were walking out. On the way through the parking lot, Holly took a long look at him. The exhaustion pulled at his eyelids.
“Why don’t I drive?” she asked. He’d done enough.
Her gaze found his, and love drifted through her. “Because you’re exhausted. Here.” She took the keys from him and opened the door. Then she stepped back. “Get in.”
He looked like he might protest, but after only a moment, he crawled in.
Holly followed him, feeling how different everything looked from over here. “Sit back, and close your eyes.”
At that moment she glanced over and found herself lost in those green eyes. “Thanks for today, Holly. I would never have made it without you.”
It should have been so easy to brush it off, but she couldn’t. His hand came up to the hair at her neck. The moment slid between them, and then like she’d been drawn there, she lowered her lips to his. A brush, a touch. Warm and soft he called to her not to leave, and she didn’t for another long moment. Then the reality of where they were kissing and who might see them flooded through her cheeks. If his mother came out and found them like this…
Holly backed up. “We’d better go.”
Gabe knew this whole thing was nuts. Here he was kissing her, falling deeper in love with her every minute, but reality was, in a month she would be gone. His mother and others in the family had already made up their minds about Holly, and he knew the uphill battle it would be to convince them otherwise. Still, every time he was with her, every time she looked at him like that, he somehow managed to talk himself out of every single reason this would never work.
Yes, she was beautiful. Yes, she was kind and thoughtful. But he couldn’t let himself be sucked into those thoughts. Reality was, she was leaving in a month, and then what? They couldn’t make a coast-to-coast relationship work, and he couldn’t ask her to stay, nor could he go. However, as tired as he was, as he watched her drive, his heart overtook his best reasoning. She didn’t seem to care at all that his pickup was 2,000 years old or that the blinker wouldn’t stay on. She drove as if made to drive this vehicle. It made him love her all the more.
In disgust at his own weakness, he turned his head from her and looked out the opposite window. It was because he was so tired, because of all the junk that had happened in the last couple of days, because of the questions of his uncertain future. It had to be. There was no other rationale for his sudden desire to throw all caution to the wind and beg her to marry him on the spot.
The drive was longer than he remembered, and as want washed over reality, his eyes closed, and he gave in to the dreams. They were better anyway. In his dreams he didn’t have to fight. He could take her in his arms and believe that it would all work out. He could kiss her and sweep her off her feet, and let the world be as his heart wanted it to be. He didn’t have to worry about his place or her place in anything. He could just be with her, and nothing could ever come between them.
“Hey.” Her voice, soft and gentle wafted over him. “Gabriel, we’re home.”
For one perfect moment his dreams met reality. He opened his eyes, and every dream he’d ever had came true. She was looking at him, gazing down with the sweetest face he’d ever seen.
Then suddenly reality snapped over him hard. He pushed himself up with a groan. “Ugh.” He rubbed his eyes. “How long was I out?”
“About 20 minutes.”
Forcing reality to stay clamped over the dreams, he pulled all the way up. The mansion stared down at him, reminding him of all the reasons the dream could never be. “I guess… I guess you’d better get inside. They’re going to be wondering about you.”
Holly’s gaze never left his face. “Mom and Luke are gone. They left right after… Today. Monte Carlo for two weeks.”
“Oh.” Gabe glanced up at the house. “Then you’re here by yourself?”
A hesitation, and she nodded. “Do you want to come in?”
Every part of him screamed to take this offer. Take it and never look back. She was, after all, the one who’d said it, the one offering. However, he knew he’d already probably set his heart up to be shattered the way it was—going any farther was the definition of insanity. Unfortunately, he also knew the mixed signals he’d been sending her about where they stood. It was confusing enough for him. He couldn’t imagine being her.
Gaze down, he turned to her and took her hand. “Look, I have to be honest with you, Holly. I owe you an apology for last night.”
“No.” He stopped her. “Let me say this. Please.”
She stopped and waited.
“You have to know by now how I feel about you, but this… us. It can’t happen.” He glanced at the dark house. Why did he have to say these words? “Not like this. Okay? I don’t want to feel like I’m sneaking around, taking advantage… of you, of them.” His gaze grabbed hers, pleading with her to understand. “You deserve better.”
There was no being sure of anything in her eyes. His gaze fell so as not to have to see the confusion he was putting there.
If he could just explain enough… “I’m sorry if I led you on, but I never thought.” He took a breath. “I never thought I would feel this way, that it would go this far.” The words choked him trying not to come out, and he squeezed his eyes closed as his heart tightened in his chest. “Look, I don’t know where my life goes from here. I don’t know if I’ll go back to school or what.”
“No.” The firmness of his gaze stopped her. “I’m serious, Holly. My future right now is like this dark room, and I have no idea where anything is.” He closed his eyes on the fear washing through him. “All I know is my mom needs me right now, and I need to be there for her.” Tears stung the backs of his eyes, sending shooting pain like arrows into his heart. “Besides you deserve more than I can ever give you.” He glanced at the house. “You deserve to be happy, to have a guy who can give you everything you’re used to. You deserve to live on the hill not in the work shop at the bottom of it.”
When he looked at her, there was real panic in her eyes and real grief in his heart.
He tried to make light of it, but it didn’t work. “Don’t worry. You’ll be all right. There are plenty of guys who would love the chance to treat you like a princess.”
“Gabriel? What are you saying?” As she looked at him, her face crumbled under the emotion. “No. Don’t… You can’t…” Pain trounced across her features. It killed him not to take her in his arms and comfort her, but he held his emotions in check even as he reached over to hug her lightly.
“Hey. Hey, please don’t cry. This is for the best. Really.” It was as if he could feel the tearing of his heart, feel it rip him right in half. “I’m sorry.”
She backed out of his arms and over to the door, nodding. Real, true cold permeated every bone in his body. She swiped at the tears. Her face was hard when she looked at him although she tried for it not to be. “Luke said you can take a few days off. I think you should.”
“No.” She stopped him with one look. “You’re exhausted. You don’t know what you’re saying.” Her hands were moving, reaching for the door handle. She stumbled out into the fading light. “Go. Take care of your mom, do what you have to do. I’ll be fine.”
His heart fell further and further with each inch she put between them. This was impossible. He didn’t want her to leave, but how could he ask her to stay?
As she stood at the pickup door, holding it open, she took a long breath. “I’ll be praying for you.” And with that, she slammed the door, jarring his fragile hold on sanity.
Helplessly, Gabe watched her, arms folded across her middle, as she raced up the stairs to the dark house. He shook his head to get himself to believe this was for the best. After all, there were others with her—Rosa, Yuri. They would take care of her far better than he ever could. Besides, his mother needed him. Closing his eyes, he slid into the driver’s seat and put it in reverse. It felt like a knife to his heart not to look back. He couldn’t. This way she could go on with her life, and he could go on with his—bleak as it was. Although it felt like life itself had fled with her, she didn’t need him, and he would have to find a way not to need her. It was the only thing that made any sense.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007