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Wicked Paradise: An Alpha Billionaire Romance by Tia Lewis (43)

Dawson

I had been to a lot of funerals. In a town like Roaring Fork, where a lot of the population was of a certain age, funerals were sort of commonplace.

I had never seen one like the one they held that Tuesday morning at the little cemetery next to the Lutheran church. It was a good thing I got there early, or else I might not have been able to get through the crowd to stand with Amanda. She was right at the head of the grave, wearing a plain black dress and heels. It was a warm day for that time of year, so there was only a sweater thrown over her shoulders. She stood straight and tall, like none of it was enough to knock her down. And it wasn’t enough—she was strong, she could handle it—but I could see her coming apart at the seams. Like the way she jumped a little when I touched her shoulder.

“Oh. It’s you.” She smiled a little, but her chin trembled.

“You can do this,” I whispered. “I’m here with you. It’ll be okay.”

She nodded, then jerked her head in the direction of the wall of flowers behind the grave. There were dozens of arrangements, big and small. “It’s like a florist shop out here.”

“He was loved.”

“He was.” She snorted. “He would love this, you know? He’d like a little more drama, I think, but on the whole, he would love being the center of attention.”

“You would never guess that by seeing him here, working,” I murmured. There were people flooding the gravesite by then, like a sea of humans dressed in black. I lost count fast. “He was the quietest, most unassuming person you could ever know.”

The short service started then, and there were plenty of tears as the Reverend talked about how good Craig was to everybody who visited his office. “I’m sure we all have at least one story of Dr. Miller’s generosity toward us or a loved one. A house call in the middle of the night. A skipped bill. Even a series of skipped bills.” A chuckle rippled through the crowd of mourners. “It’s certain we won’t see the likes of him again.”

I swallowed over the lump in my throat and wrapped an arm around Amanda’s shoulders. She shook—not hard, not constantly, but the rhythmic shaking of a person struggling to contain sobs. She fought to hold them in, even though I didn’t think anybody there would’ve held it against her if she let go. She had her reasons, I guessed.

Later, her mom walked past the casket and dropped a white rose on top. She didn’t make eye contact with her daughter but gave me a small, tentative smile.

* * *

The food was set up when I got to the diner ahead of the crowd. Debbie and a few of the girls were nice enough not to go to the service so they could get things set up.

“We’re gonna get slammed,” I reported as I rolled up my sleeves. “The entire town was out there.”

“We have more food in the back, too,” Debbie reminded me. “We’ll be fine.” She rubbed my back as I washed my hands.

“I know. I know. I’m just a little shaken up, I guess.”

“You buried a friend today, kid.” I looked at her and noticed the smudges under her eyes. I guessed all that eyeliner and mascara wasn’t waterproof.

Amanda walked in then and looked around. “Wow. This is amazing.” She gave Debbie a brave smile and accepted a long hug. “You guys did such a great job for him. I…wish I had been here to do more.”

I heard what she was really saying. All that time, Craig was just hers. Her best friend. They had their own little world. But then this happened, and she found out he belonged to all of us. That wasn’t an easy thing to come to terms with. Then again, if she had ever stepped foot over the border into town—just once—she could’ve seen that while he was still alive. The thought made me feel sorry for her. She had missed out on a lot.

I couldn’t face you again when it felt like you never cared about me. I heard her voice in my head, accusing me, reminding me that it wasn’t all her fault that she hadn’t come back.

No time to think it over, since cars were starting to pull up. We’d be stacked three deep by the time everybody got in, I guessed. I didn’t even get the chance to pull Amanda aside and ask how she was holding up before the door opened and people started pouring in. It was enough work to keep things moving smoothly. Friends came and went, most of them not staying too long, so there was a pretty regular turnover. Bill worked double time washing the dishes, which the girls just brought right back in after they were used.

“You should sit and have something to eat.” Jake patted a stool by the counter. “Seriously. You’re gonna fall over, and we’ll be doing this for you next.”

I winced. Jake’s face went red. “Sorry. That was tasteless.”

I waved it off and sat with half a roast beef sandwich. “If I’m running, I’m not thinking.”

“That makes sense,” he said. “I know the feeling. Whenever things get tight at home, or we’re not doing so well, going to work makes it easier. You don’t have to focus on what’s wrong.”

I clapped him on the back. “I’ll do my best.” I looked around then. “You seen Amanda?”

“Not lately. So what’s going on with you two?”

I shot him a look. “Not the time.” I went looking for her, since it bothered me to think of her being alone just then. Not when she looked like she was wound so tight, she might pop any second. It was pretty crowded in there—maybe she went outside for air. Far away from the smokers, of course. I sidestepped a big cluster of them and walked around to the side of the building, following the sound of her voice. She was talking to somebody. She didn’t sound happy about it, either.

When I rounded the corner, I found her pacing back and forth with her phone to her ear. She didn’t see me with the dumpster between us. I watched as she hit her forehead with the heel of her hand.

“You’ve called this a vacation three times now, Jim,” she hissed. “I don’t think that’s very nice.”

A vacation? Her boss? I shouldn’t be listening but couldn’t help myself. She almost never talked about work except when she was throwing around the name of her firm. I didn’t even know how she felt about the work she did or the type of law she practiced. She wanted to know all the details of my life, but I didn’t get anything about hers.

She threw a hand in the air. “I understand that, and I’ve been managing things from here. I’ve also been waiting for a dead body to get released so I can have a funeral. The funeral was this morning, by the way.” She wrapped her free arm around her waist and bent forward a little, like she was protecting herself. “Yes. I know. Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Her shoulders fell. I wished I could beat the hell out of whoever was giving her shit. Yeah, she’d been gone for a week, but whatever happened to vacation and personal time? She had to get that, right? Working for a big firm like hers. She had mentioned something about being a partner, or almost being a partner. That meant she was a big deal. Even I knew that.

She looked up at the sky with her lips pressed tight together. I could almost hear a man’s voice on the other end of the call. He had to be talking pretty loud if I could hear him from where I was standing. She shook her head again and again. Finally, she cut him off. “I need until the end of the week. I’ll haul ass and get the house finished up and do what has to be done by this weekend. By next week, I’ll be able to come back.”

My heart sank. I told myself that was how things were always going to be. She had to go back to her life. Her life wasn’t with me. She had worked hard, for a lot of years, to get where she was. If all the last week had to give me was the time with her and the chance to work things out a little bit, that would have to be enough. It wasn’t right to ask for forever.

Even though I wanted to.

She ended the call and sank back against the wall with her arms tight around her waist. Anybody could see the pain on her face as she stared out across the parking lot. Was it all about Craig? Or was it something else?

I cleared my throat. “Don’t bother pretending you didn’t hear that whole thing,” she sighed, still looking straight ahead.

“You’re pretty perceptive,” I tried to joke.

“Or you’re terrible at sneaking around. No, I take that back. It was your cologne. I could smell it even standing next to a dumpster.” She glanced at me with a grin. “I like it.”

“I’m glad because you’re gonna smell a lot of it just now.” I took her in my arms and held her tight. She had no choice but to stay there, with me, at that moment. She wasn’t going anywhere. If I could’ve stood there until we were both dust, I would have.

Something my mom said years earlier bubbled up to the surface. I was sitting at the kitchen table while she made dinner—as an adult, remembering it, I could see how tired and thin she had become. As a kid, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Too busy worrying about myself.

I had been complaining to her about Amanda leaving for college after graduation. Complaining because I couldn’t be honest and tell her how it was tearing me apart inside. Who wanted to admit to their mother that their first love was going to leave for at least four years and they didn’t know what to do about it?

She had turned around with two plates of spaghetti in hand and slid them on the table before sitting across from me. We were eating alone that night—nothing new, but it would become the norm by the end of that summer when Dad left for good. I could see her sitting there as clear as if she was in front of me again. She smiled her tired smile and said, “You can’t make a person stay, no matter how much you want them to. That’s what love really is. It’s not begging a person to stay with you. It’s letting them find what’s best for them and wanting them to be happy.”

“But what’s the point if I’m not happy?” I had asked.

That smile of hers never faded. “You have to be happy for her. She’s going after what she thinks is going to make her a whole person. You don’t want to keep her here when she feels like she needs something else. She’ll only be unhappy, and you’ll be miserable with her.”

I was sure she was wrong back then, but I figured out how right she was as I grew up. And I started to wonder if she wasn’t talking about herself just as much as she was talking about me. There had to be hints that Dad was going to leave. I hated to think about her fighting with herself over letting him go.

“I’m so tired,” Amanda murmured against my chest. She snapped me back to reality.

“It’s been a long day. A long week.”

“It has. I feel so sad. Doesn’t that sound juvenile? Like, of course, I feel sad.”

“Not juvenile. It’s the truth. I’m sad, too.”

“Can you come back with me when this is all over? To the house, I mean?”

“I’ll meet you there later, okay? I have to help clean up and turn over for dinner service later on.”

“Of course.” She smiled up at me and gave me a quick kiss before going back inside. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but she wasn’t the only one who had a life to take care of.

I wished as I followed her back into the diner that I was strong enough to let her go a second time.

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