THE DAY had come together perfectly, and nothing could mar Angelique Donetti’s happiness.
The organist’s flawlessly played notes resonated throughout the stone walls of the cathedral, her Uncle Barry was waiting to walk her down the aisle, and Lucas! Her charming fiancé Lucas Abercrombie was finally here to stay, his myriad business trips concluded just in time for their wedding vows to commence.
Even the blizzard from the previous day had the city more beautiful than it had ever looked before.
“Mumsy,” Angelique whispered. “I feel Daddy watching over me. He’s helped make this day so perfect in every way.”
She stood in front of a floor-length mirror, beautiful in white, with a veil covering her dark hair. Her mother was at her shoulder.
“Je vous aime.” Pinky Donetti, Angelique’s mother, gave her beautiful daughter a kiss. “I do so love you, my sweets. This is a perfect day. Yours.”
Angelique giggled. “Je vous aime? Shouldn’t you say Je t’aime?”
“Sweetie, the Paris runways are on the other side of the world. It’s the love that matters.” Pinky pursed her lips as she adjusted the veil in her daughter’s hair and draped it down her shoulders. “I still love my Emilio, but you should be glad for his insurance policy, my dear. Pinky, he always said to me, I want my Angelique to have the best. All this is your father around you, sweetheart. He can’t be here, but his love is.”
“Oh, Mummy!” Angelique hugged her mother’s slender frame. “Sometimes I miss him so much, but today I just feel how much I loved him.”
Her mother gently touched her arms and looked into her eyes. “Love him, daughter, not loved. As long as we remember him, he’s still inside our hearts. Now, there’s another man waiting outside, and he’s not just in our hearts, is he?” She winked. “Be strong for the crowd out there. You were just a girl, but I’ve seen you walk the runways, and you have it in you. Your Uncle Barry and I will be your best cheering section.” She reached under the veil and brushed the tips of her fingers along her daughter’s cheek.
Angelique took a tissue from the table at her side, and she dabbed her eyes. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she pulled a strand of hair from her cheek, then she touched her finger to her tongue to moisten it and dabbed at the corner of her mouth.
“No, you don’t, girl.” Her mother frowned in reproof, the expression barely making a crinkle in the perfection of her face. “I walked in front of those tungsten lights too many years to tolerate that. That lipstick might claim to be waterproof, but you keep that tongue off.” Then she smiled and drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a slow release. “You are so beautiful, my wonderful daughter. No one would guess you’re now twenty-nine. That Lucas Abercrombie could do worse.” She sniffled and looked away.
“Tears, Mum? Don’t forget that we’re already legal.” Angelique turned and placed her hand just under Pinky’s chin.
“I remember, that silly trip to the courthouse just before Christmas, and it still breaks my heart that the justice of the peace saw you married before I did.” Pinky dabbed at the corner of one eye with a tissue. “I can’t believe I wasn’t there with you. Oh, my little baby.”
“It was tying up the trust fund, remember, for the movie Lucas is underwriting this summer. It was just a formality. Oh, Mumsy! This is my real day, and you’ve made it so special.”
Pinky wriggled her fingers at her and reached for another tissue. She dabbed at her other eye, then she laughed, the shift in her features coming across as bright and charming.
“I just saw one of your old commercials on the television the other day. You remember the one where you were on the swing, and all the butterflies landed on your arms?” Pinky placed her hands under the veil to rest them at the base of her daughter’s neck, once more stroking her fingers against the skin there. “After seeing that, I pulled out some of your old catwalk shots, and I laughed at the skinny fourteen-year-old with all those crazy hairstyles they made you wear.”
Angelique smiled. “You’ve worn some strange get-ups, too. Remember that pink bubble-dress that everyone could see through?”
“Dear, your mum hasn’t been on the runway in years. I really don’t remember, anymore. Besides, today is about you. You have six bridesmaids all ready to charm your audience today, and I saw one or two of the groomsmen, too. Your Lucas knows how to pick the handsome ones.”
“Fraternity chums, Mum. That’s what’s kept Lucas away so much the past year, that and his business interests. He’s had to fly out to sort the latest wedding details.” Over and over, but she didn’t bring that up.
He’d been gone a lot, though, and it had bothered her. She’d met the best man, Houston Richemont, at his place right on the beach in L.A. However, as soon as she and Lucas had arrived, her fiancé had been summoned to San Francisco, leaving Houston to entertain her. Then, another man had demanded Houston’s attention, and he’d disappeared, too. Left alone much of the weekend, seeing Lucas and their host only intermittently, she’d walked the beach for hours, wishing she’d never gone. Then, she’d been whisked back home in a wild whirlwind, hardly given the chance to interact with her wonderful fiancé.
“Fraternity chums, you say.” Pinky smiled as she worked in a hairpin to secure the veil. “I should have been so lucky to be in the sorority next door.”
Angelique frowned. “There’s one I don’t know, though. The fourth groomsman isn’t from the fraternity. He’s a last-minute replacement. Something about Lucas’ friend going to Rio for Carnival. Ricky Rinaldo. I haven’t met Ricky, yet. Mum, who would abandon a friend’s wedding to run off to Brazil?”
She quipped, “Someone who really loves a party?” Then she laughed. “I’m so sorry. I’ve seen the replacement. I think you might have caught a glimpse of him yesterday here at the church. Rather rugged, but quite handsome in a craggy sort of way.” Her eyes twinkled conspiratorially. “I’ve worked with a few men like that in my day. Quite the attractor for a certain type of women.”
“Not for me. I’ve got a man.” Angelique held up her hand, moving her finger so her engagement ring caught the light.
“Still,” Pinky smiled. “You have friends out there who don’t. And he is handsome. Gator, I think. Yes, I clearly heard the minister ask if Gator Gallagher was here, and I saw the new man wave and call back in acknowledgement.” She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially to her daughter, “Needed a bit of a shave at the groomsmen’s special rehearsal early this morning, if I do say so.”
“The minister insisted he practice at least once, thank goodness.”
Both women paused as they heard the organ music in the old building’s walls shift in tempo
“The time, Mummy?” Angelique felt her voice tremble. As much as she adored Lucas, she felt as if she would soon be marrying someone she barely knew.
Her mother patted her on the shoulder and whispered words of encouragement to her. “Jitters, dear daughter. Every bride has them. I experienced my share. Today is perfect, one you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Let’s go enjoy it.”
Angelique smiled, but that didn’t stop the sudden dance of butterflies that filled her stomach. She remembered the feel of them on her arms—real ones, not computer generated illusions—and she liked them better on the outside than on the inside. But her mother was correct. Today was absolutely perfect, and she couldn’t be happier.
Anyway, Lucas wouldn’t be a stranger much longer. Another hour, and he would be all hers, forever and ever, until death did they part.
“Mum.” She lifted her veil and gave her mother a kiss. “Let’s go knock their socks off.”
Her mother beamed. “It’s just another walk down the runway, isn’t it? Only this time, there’s a prize at the end, and he’s tall, handsome, and very charming. He’s certainly charmed me.” Pinky leaned in, sleek and polished in her haute couture, and her gleaming lips just brushed her daughter’s cheek. “Now, let me say a prayer that you’ll be as happy as I’ve always wanted you to be.”
As her mother prayed, Angelique was chilled. She realized Lucas had also charmed her, but had he ever given her more? Oh, he had said he loved her, and many times, too. Surely his affection hadn’t all been charm.
She shook her head to clear those thoughts away. Lucas loved her, there was a crowd of people out there to cheer them on, and tonight she would be Mrs. Lucas Abercrombie. Pinky was right. Pre-wedding jitters, that was all. After all, today had come together perfectly, and nothing could mar her happiness.
“UNCLE, am I making a mistake?” Angelique stood at his side. She remembered a comment she had overheard Lucas make to Houston before running off to San Francisco. When I pull this off, they can’t keep the trust fund from me. Now it seemed odd. She didn’t know what made her recall it.
Uncle Barry wrapped his arm through his niece’s, and his round face smiled. “Sweet Pea, you’re doing fine. Just hold your head high, and the whole crowd will cheer for you. Remember, this is the finest fashion show in the world, and you’re the star.” He lifted her veil to kiss her cheek. “Lucas is a lucky man. If I were thirty years younger―”
“And not my uncle.” She grinned. She had heard this before.
“―and not your uncle, I’d be standing up there waiting for some old fogey to bring my vision of a bride down that aisle to me. If his heart doesn’t do double time, then he’s not the man we all hope he is.” He winked.
“He is, Uncle. He’s the man all of you hope he is. I know.” Hoped, anyway. He would be. She loved him, and that was all she needed.
He frowned. “He hasn’t, you know, I mean, you two haven’t . . .”
She laughed, and as the auditorium doors began to open, she whispered, “He’s been too much of a gentleman, Uncle. Just kiss. That’s all we’ve done.” He’d been gone so much there hadn’t been much of an opportunity, even if she had been so inclined. During that trip to California, even during the nights he’d often been away from the house until nearly sunup. No, there’d been no opportunity, even though she’d not minded waiting.
She was giddy about tonight, though. They’d be in New York for the rest of the week at The St. Regis, and then they were off to Maui for six weeks. It was only recently he had told her his reason for waiting a week after the ceremony to go to Maui. He’d given an open invitation for his groomsmen to fly down on his meal ticket, and would Angelique like to ask her bridesmaids? He’d rented the entire floor at one of the resorts on the island, and there was room for all of them.
That was very generous, she’d told him, and she’d put aside her misgivings about having a crowd along. It would be a nice treat for the wedding party, although she knew most of her attendants would be back at work once the festivities were done. However, she’d assured him she would encourage them to tag along.
Stepping under the grand, vaulted ceiling as the wedding march reverberated throughout the structure, the rustle of people as they stood vied for control of the room. Then all was still except for the pulsing throb of the organ. Rose petals greeted Angelique’s feet as whispered words assailed her ears.
“So pretty!” That was from a woman.
“Hubba!” A man, obviously.
She smiled at the masculine voice, taking the compliment as it was intended. There were many more, but they blended into the background, fading as she approached the front with her treasured uncle on her arm.
As the minister questioned her uncle about giving the bride, she let her eyes glance at her attendants, remembering Lucas’ offer of six weeks in Maui. Trina Ridley was married with two children already. Angelique’s twin cousins, Sara and Clara Riverton, were both at Yale. Tishawna Burton had to fly back to Nashville before dark. Her band was in the middle of a recording session. That left only Beckie Black and Heather Gray, and neither one had committed. They had been wild as Maine nor’easters back in college, though. With a sigh of relief, Angelique was pleased to see their hair was no longer its usual vibrant neon glow.
As her uncle called out his response to the minister’s question, she glanced at the groomsmen. She actually had no idea who might be making the trip to Hawaii from Lucas’ friends. Every one of them, for all she knew. None of his friends were married, unless that Gator Gallagher character was. She picked him out immediately. Now she remembered seeing him for a moment the previous day. He was rough, just like her mother had said, and he had needed a shave. However, that stubbled chin had added an alluring appeal to his craggy face. His jaw was smoothly clean now, though, and she was grateful for that.
Then there was Houston Richemont with his provocative humor and his dark good looks. A race car driver, she’d learned during the visit to L.A. At his side, Jerrold Ritchey was in commercials. He looked like the grown-up version of a boy she’d acted with in a deodorant ad. His given name was even the same. She remembered because there had been a Geritol commercial filming next door, and the name had struck her as amusingly similar.
Treavor Daley at his side was a jock, Olympic swimming. He had that look. Bobby and Robby Lanier were Lucas’ twin friends. They didn’t do anything except shop as far as she knew. They had an antiques place on Long Island and perhaps did a bit of decorating in the Hamptons.
Then there was Lucas standing before her, and she knew it was worth all the time he had been gone during the past year, the weeks he had spent with his friends from the old frat house making arrangements for them to be present today. They would be together forever now, bonded in holy matrimony, until death, and so on.
As she stepped before the minister, that was all she wanted, to be with Lucas for the rest of his life. Till death do we part. She smiled when the vows reached those words.
She meant it, too; and with all her heart, she was certain Lucas felt exactly the same way.
THE RECEPTION line was long, and Angelique was glad to see it at least half complete. The church had been packed, and everyone had decided to join them afterward. After a hug from her Great-Aunt Lucy, she held her hand out to the next person in line, a slender and shimmering . . . woman? only to have Lucas brush her aside.
“Cheeky! I hoped you’d come.” His face lit up—really lit up—for the first time since the receiving line had started.
Angelique glanced at her husband’s smile. She was glad to see it, too. After the ceremony, he’d seemed rather distracted, as if an onerous duty had been completed, and he could finally shift his attention elsewhere.
“Surely you didn’t bring Squeegie.” Lucas’ smile fell away. When Cheeky shook her head, he brightened once again.
Before Angelique could introduce herself to their guest, Lucas laughed and wrapped his arms around the oddly dressed, slender shoulders—she was beginning to think she might be a man—and hugged her/him far longer than seemed appropriate. However, this could be a friend whom he hadn’t seen in a very long time, so she was patient, even though the receiving line was still very long. When they released each other was when she was especially surprised. Lucas’ eyes were red.
“Lucas,” she smiled. “Introduce me to your friend.”
His voice was broken with emotion when he spoke. “Cheeky, this is Angelique, my wife. Angelique, Cheeky Zimmerman.” Then he looked away, sniffling.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Cheeky.” Glancing at Lucas, she was puzzled, but she remembered her own twisted emotions from earlier. He could be having a few of his own. “Cheeky, Lucas mentioned someone named . . . Squeegie?”
The slender woman/man tore his eyes from Lucas for the first time to glance at her. “Our . . . I mean, my daughter. Lucas . . . knows her.” She/he smiled, but it crumbled quickly. “She had . . . um . . . school and couldn’t come.”
She watched this . . . man? . . . and tried not to smile too broadly. His long, blonde hair was swept back at the temples, and he . . . or she . . . moved with a silkiness that was suggestive of a female impersonator. His suit, a shimmering gold lamé shot through with red threads over cream silk trousers, was of good quality, although he seemed ill-at-ease wearing it. His hands never stopped fluttering at his chest.
“Your . . . spouse . . . must be very sweet to keep her so that you could come. That is very kind of him, er, her.” She grimaced at her slip.
His eyes flicked from Lucas’ face to hers just for a moment, and his hands flew open. “No, no. There is no spouse . . . not anymore. My . . . significant other has abandoned me for a woman.” His eyes narrowed for a moment at Lucas. “Poor Squeegie is with her granny.”
“Granny?” Lucas stepped forward as if pulled by a hidden and very taut string. “Cheeky, you didn’t leave my . . . our . . . er, your daughter with Granny Swell. Tell me not.”
Cheeky puffed up then, and he put his hand on his hip, looking away, apparently irritated. His voice took a new, rather petulant tone. “You want her, friend, I’ll send her to you. I still need the loft kept up, though. I have to paint. In fact, I’d go to Rio in a heartbeat if I didn’t have your . . . um, my daughter to watch over . . . and that Granny Swell.” He made a pouty face. “Then I’d be with Ricky. He’s already there, you know. He told me I could come if I didn’t have Granny Swell. He only wants Squeegie.”
Angelique was now confused—and concerned—about the possessives these two men were bantering about when claiming this daughter. Lucas had never mentioned a child, and surely this man, this Cheeky, was not a woman impersonating a man, not at hers and Lucas’ wedding.
Before she could ask any questions, Lucas interjected forcefully, “Rio? With Ricky? You wouldn’t dare take my Squeegie there!”
“Try me, buster! Two can play at this game. All I have to do is figure out something to do with that Granny Swell.” Cheeky grinned maliciously and began to walk off.
Lucas hissed after him, taking a step forward, “You know why I had to do this.” The departing man simply wriggled his fingers at him over his shoulder.
Grabbing her husband’s arm to pull him back beside her, Angelique whispered to him, “Lucas, I don’t know what’s going on, but it can wait, can’t it? This is our reception, and the line’s backed up. That awful man’s gone, now. He is a man, I take it.”
With a snort, he stepped back into line, clearly perturbed by the odd man-woman. “Yes, he’s a man, after a manner of speaking.”
Angelique put a smile on her face to greet those who pressed down the line, and she nudged Lucas to do the same. In between guests, she whispered, “Bad blood?” When he didn’t respond, she insisted, “Lucas? What’s going on?”
“I did something very cruel to him, but it was necessary. He can’t forgive me, even though I promised to make it up to him.” He forced a smile as an older woman came up to him. “Auntie Rubie.”
“Luke, I’m so proud of you.” Her voice was raspy, and she spoke much louder than necessary. “You finally grew up and got you a girl.” Then she leaned in to Angelique. “You keep him on the straight and narrow, girl. Get it? Straight and narrow.” Leaning further in to give her an unexpected kiss on the cheek, the old woman chuckled and waddled away.
“Lucas?” The line was finally thinning, and it was Angelique’s opportunity to question the old woman’s odd greeting.
He sighed. “She’s never gotten my name right, even when I was a kid.”
“That’s not what I meant. Got you a girl? Straight and narrow? This day was perfect, my dream wedding day, Lucas. Now, with all these people . . . .”
However, he turned and caught sight of Cheeky. He was on the far side of the room holding a glass of champagne in each hand. Lucas sighed before he took Angelique’s arm and gave a tired smile. “Bad seeds. That’s all it is. Every family has a few. You’re just meeting all mine at once.”
“Cheeky? That man seemed rather . . . intimate.”
He licked his lips, and his eyes looked everywhere except at his bride’s face. “Cheeky has a . . . crush on me, or he used to, anyway. We were very close, and then life changed. He won’t accept that, and he won’t turn loose. He’ll be gone tomorrow.”
She smiled, touched by her husband’s sudden tender bumbling in the light of this silly crush this other man had once had on him. “To Brazil?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, they were red and glistening with moisture. “God, I hope not,” he mumbled. Just then a redheaded man with a skinny doppelganger nearly his height stepped up.
“Lucas! You pulled it off. I’m proud of you, man. You’ve not seen my son since the divorce.” Then he turned to Angelique. “What a beautiful bride you are! Too bad Lucas snagged you. By the way, the ‘hubba’ was mine.” He laughed at his revelation. “Angelique, meet my son, Buzz. He’s thirteen going on twenty, except most of it’s in height. Skinny height.”
“Dad!” His son groaned. Then he reached a hand to Angelique, his face brightening. “Ever been hang gliding?” He waited with an expectant smile.
Angelique glanced at Lucas, who seemed very preoccupied, and then back at the red-haired duo in front of her. “Hang gliding?”
The father piped up, glancing at his son and back to her. “Just go sometime, before this bozo you’ve married leaves you a stranded society matron. By the way, Lucas seems to have zoned out, so I’ll introduce myself. I’m Riley. We met briefly in L.A., but you obviously don’t remember. I monopolized Houston’s time that weekend. Family issues. My wife—ex-wife, now—said I loved him more than her, and it was true.” He laughed, glancing between Lucas and Angelique. “What can I say? I left my wife for another man.”
His son grinned. “For Uncle Houston, you mean. Besides, Mom left us.”
Riley slapped his son on the shoulder. “You can call him Uncle all you want, but you know Houston is really your second father.”
“I know,” the boy laughed. “Dad One, and Dad Two.”
Riley whispered to Angelique, “Houston and I are both raising this boy, have been ever since he was a baby. I’m better off without the wife, not to impugn your new marriage.”
Lucas growled, “Move on, Riley. Tell Houston Cheeky’s here—and he left Squeegie with Granny Swell.”
“Granny Swell?” It seemed Riley knew exactly who Lucas meant. “Has anyone called up there to check on her?”
Buzz’s face brightened. “I’ll do it, Dad One. I’ll call to check. I’ll tell Uncle Houston, too.” He turned in that quick way overly mature thirteen-year-olds move, calling to the other side of the room, “Dad Two! Houston, come in! It’s Buzz calling. Acknowledge!”
His father slapped him on the shoulder. “Just go over there, Buzz. You’re not an astronaut.”
“And Dad Two’s not a city? C’mon, Dad One.” The boy laughed and ran towards his Uncle Houston.
Angelique smiled brightly, her head starting to spin. Was everyone in Lucas’ circle, both family and friends, a bad seed? Did he have any good seeds growing around him? Now all she needed to do was meet Gator to find that he had one leg, because an alligator had chewed it off.
However, she had to admit her family wasn’t perfect, either. Neither were her friends. Her mother had been a runway model, and everyone knew how bad their lives were. Her father was dead, and her closest relatives other than her mother and her uncle were her two cousins at Yale—on academic scholarships, for goodness sakes—and one great aunt. Her best friend had two kids who drove Angelique crazy, and Beckie and Heather—why, Angelique wasn’t sure she even knew them anymore. Her half of the family was every bit as crazy as Lucas’.
That’s what had him disgruntled, rolling his eyes, and acting distant to her, she was sure. What they really needed was a week alone together. Then everything would be fine. They could really get to know each other, and they would find that with all the distractions of life out of the way, they were perfect for each other, indeed, just as she had known they were all along.
ANGELIQUE turned at a touch, and there was her mother, red-eyed. She pulled her into a quick hug. “I love you, Mum.”
“You’ll always be my baby. You know that.” Pinky brushed her daughter’s face, and she kissed her on the cheek. “You have your father’s cheekbones. Have I ever told you that?”
Angelique pressed her mother’s hand to her face as she smiled. “Only a hundred times, Mummy, and I love it each time. How else am I like him?”
Pinky brushed the softness of her daughter’s face with the backs of her fingers as the sounds of the wedding party swirled around them. “Baby, everything you do is just like him. He loved you so much, and when he left, he was still here all because I had you. I want you to have a good life, sweetie, just like we had.” She looked away, her eyes red with emotion.
“Mum, I’m not going away forever. I’ll be in town this week, still, and then it’s just Maui for six weeks.”
“You’ll understand, someday. It’s not how far you go. It’s the turning loose that’s hard. Quickly, now. Everyone’s lined up. It’s cold outside, so you be sure to bundle up. It might be warm in that limousine, but the run to it will give you frostbite. Baby, your mother loves you, and you make that Lucas treat you right.”
She laughed. “I will, Mumsy. You know that. Lucas and I haven’t had much time together the past year, but things will change now. Till death, you know. Richer and poorer, and all those promises we made.” She held up her ring and flashed the diamond. “I definitely like the richer part.”
Her mother pushed on her daughter’s shoulder. “Go, Angelique. Throw your bouquet to a lucky girl, and enjoy your new husband. Love you, sweetie.”
Angelique grabbed her mother’s hand and squeezed it with a laugh, and she ran to her bridesmaids and the coat they were holding open for her.
“Thank you, all, for being here for me. I would tell you that you can shorten your dresses and wear them again, but I know better. Trina, give your two little ones a hug for me, and give Paul a hug for yourself. He doesn’t need one from me.” A ripple of laughter ran through the group. “Sara and Clara, make your scholarships pay off with a couple of 4.0 averages, and Tishawna, I want to hear you on the radio soon. Good luck.”
She turned to the last two and gave them a special hug. “Beckie and Heather, I hope you can arrange to come to Maui. If you can’t stay the entire time, at least for a week or two. Lucas has everything covered, and the rooms will sit empty if you’re not there. Try, please?”
“We will, just for you,” they responded as one.
The six friends wrapped Angelique snugly in their arms, and Trina handed her the bouquet. “Tishawna needs it,” she whispered. “We’re standing back to let her catch it. Aim well, girl.” She laughed a low and luxurious burble as she backed away.
“Let me get Lucas.” Angelique held up one finger and laughed as she moved his direction.
Lucas was surrounded by his buddies, and Angelique was surprised to see one man with his arms wrapped around her husband. As she tapped Lucas’ shoulder and he turned, she noticed Cheeky’s lips brush her man’s face. She felt a shiver run down her spine, and she knew she’d be glad to be away from this crowd. Maybe Cheeky would go to Rio for Carnival after all, and maybe he’d stay. She was glad Lucas didn’t have a crush on him.
“Let’s go, Lucas. The limo is waiting, and I’m ready to throw the bouquet.” Leaning in closer, she slipped her hand inside his coat, feeling the welcome warmth of his skin bleeding through his shirt. “I want you all to myself for a change.”
He smiled, but it faded quickly. “These are my very best friends, Angelique. I was just saying farewell.” Then he brightened, his change in demeanor sudden and obvious, as he put his arm around her. “You know you’re married to a very rich man. Well, six months from that day at the Justice of the Peace, but technically we’ve fulfilled the terms of the trust fund.” He laughed brightly. “How exciting is that?”
“I don’t care about the trust fund, Lucas. I care about you. You spend it all.” And she didn’t care, really. She’d married him for love.
As they walked towards the door, he whispered in her ear, “Start caring. They wrapped great-grandmother’s cash in rules and regulations, just hoping I’d never get access. I proved them wrong. I’ve beaten them.”
“Lucas! Why do you say that?”
“Now that we’ve had the religious ceremony, even if I die, the trustees can’t regain control of the money.” He chuckled, and it sounded vengeful.
She looked at him. “How horrible! I don’t want to even think about that.”
“You’d better.” They stopped at the door, and he looked at her with a smirk.
“Why, Lucas?” She didn’t like this line of talk, not on her wedding day.
“It would all go to you, and they know it. Just stick with me, Angelique. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of. Trust me. I’ll make all this worth your while.”
She didn’t really understand what he was telling her, but it didn’t matter. She had her column with Fisherman’s World that forced her to publish under a male pseudonym. Heaven forbid a woman who didn’t fish should publish in a man’s outdoor magazine. Yes, it was okay that Lucas’ trust fund had rules, and it was fine if she never saw any of the money. It was Lucas she loved, and she would take him even if he had no money.
“Throw it, Angelique!”
The cry roused, and she laughed, immediately swept into the spirit of the moment. The crowd waiting at the door had pulled on coats and scarves in anticipation. Hats were doffed by the men, with fur-rimmed collars warming the women, and laughter and catcalls good-naturedly filtered into the air.
“Who wants to get married next?” She laughed again when all the fingers pointed to Tishawna. “Get ready! Here it comes!”
She turned and flipped it over her shoulder to resounding cheers, and looking, she let out a screech of excitement to see it resting in Tishawna’s hands. Running to her, she threw her hands around her friend and kissed her on the cheek.
“I hope someday you have as wonderful a day as I’ve had today. It’s worth it. Take a chance on love. You won’t regret it one moment.”
Turning, she ran to the door, and grabbing Lucas’ hand, she waved to the crowd. “I love you all,” she called as loudly as she could. Then, as birdseed showered them, she pulled close to him, and the doors were flung wide.
It was bitterly cold outside, and a black limousine idled at the bottom of the steps. The wind was blustery, and dry snow from the previous day’s storm whipped across the heavy, wet layer from the week before. It was beautiful, even if the buzzing of cable stays and lighting standards on the tops of nearby buildings occasionally shrieked to bone-jarring intensities. From time to time, the high-pitched sound of metal against metal squealed in protest, decrying the strain of two feet of snow on rooftop water tanks and storage structures. The streets had been plowed, though, and nothing had dirtied the snow. The rooflines were beautifully mounded with the heavy, wet froth, and a water tower on the building across the street looked like a giant snowman.
It was a wonderland.
With the wedding guests pushing them out the door, the music inside swelled into the street, and Angelique and Lucas ran to the car. As they approached, a liveried driver stepped out and deftly opened the door for them. Laughing, she fell on Lucas as they tumbled inside. As the car pulled slowly forward, he began to remove his coat, and she looked out the window to see her mother step from the door and wave. As she did, Pinky’s slender hand reached to her face to wipe away tears.
“Lucas, stop the car. I must give my mother one last hug. Please.” She turned to him and placed her hand on his chest once again, slipping it just inside his shirt. Feeling the warmth of his skin a second time, this time with nothing between her hand and his flesh, made her stomach tremble with desire, and she knew this man would be the light of her life. He could do nothing wrong. The very feel of his skin was perfection to her.
“Driver,” he called. “Pull over, if you don’t mind. My wife needs to exit the car for a moment.”
“Thank you, Lucas. I’ll be right back.” She leaned to kiss him, and as she did, she ran her hand along the side of his neck, barely able to contain her longing for him. Pulling away, she felt the blast of cold as the driver opened the door. “I love you, Lucas.”
He smiled at her sentiment. “Ditto, Angelique. Hurry. It’s freezing with the door open.”
As she stepped from the car, a terrific blast of wind surged through the city streets, whipping the snow violently, and causing the driver to stumble and nearly lose his footing. The cable stays overhead hummed with the force of the gale, and Angelique had to brace herself against the car door. A screech of metal far overhead preceded a series of gunshot-like popping sounds. Looking up, she could see nothing untoward, and she smiled at the driver as he closed the door behind her.
“Hurry back, miss. It’s cold out here. You don’t want to get chilled.”
She held up her hand to show him her glittering diamond ring. “It’s missus, now.” Laughing, she ran across the street and up the steps toward her mother.
Pinky threw her hands around her daughter. “Sweetie, your husband. He needs you.”
“Mummy, you were crying, and I couldn’t resist.” She brushed her mother’s face with her hands. “One last hug before we go.”
Then, before they could wrap their arms around each other, a metallic scream rent the day in two. In a slow motion cascade of snow, the water tower on the building opposite the cathedral tilted its burden of white frosting sideways, dumping it into the street directly onto the limousine. The driver took several quick steps backwards, brushing his coat off as yet another screech ripped the frigid air. Everyone looked up to the horrific vision of the water tower tilting, its movement barely perceptible, then leaning farther and farther, drawn downward by invisible fingers of gravity.
When Angelique realized it wasn’t going to stop, she screamed and made as if to run toward the car. Before she reached the first step, the falling tower had hit the roof of the limousine, crushing the vehicle, while splitting the tumbled behemoth down the side, bleeding chunks of ice and water into the street.
The world stood frozen in silence except for Angelique’s repeated screams. She collapsed on the steps, as several of the men in the wedding party crowded around the car to see if they could do anything.
When Pinky threw her arms around her daughter, Angelique fell against her, mumbling through her tears, “Oh, my precious Lucas! Till death do we part.”
ANGELIQUE ran her hands across the surface of Lucas’ bronze urn. “I don’t care about the money. I never did, never knew how much there was, really. I have a job, you know.”
It had been five days, and she still could not believe this was her Lucas inside this container.
“The lawyers care,” her Uncle Barry insisted. “Apparently, so does this Cheeky character. He, she, it, or whatever that person is seems to think he deserves some of what Lucas had. Do you have any idea what the connection is?” With a meaty hand, he reached to an open candy bowl for a toffee, and as he sat back in his chair and unwrapped it, he glanced at his sister with a scowl. “So, Pinky? Anything?”
“They were friends,” Angelique shot out with more force than she might have intended under other circumstances. “They were friends with an old history, that’s all.”
With the monthly disbursements to Cheeky and the furnished but unoccupied lofts that Lucas had maintained—the lawyers had revealed that and much more to her—she had seen vivid writing on the wall in the intimacy she had so casually brushed aside at the reception. She couldn’t bear to think of it, though, and she would have no one impugn Lucas’ character. She was still deeply in love with him, and especially in death, she wanted everyone else to believe in him just as she had . . . or rather did, she corrected herself with a twinge of guilt.
“Dear, Lucas isn’t going anywhere. Come away from the urn.” Pinky put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. She glanced at Barry and closed her eyes a moment before continuing. “Maui. Are you still going? You should, you know. Take your cousins. Beckie and Heather, too. You’ve been out of touch with those two for entirely too long. This is a good chance to get reacquainted. Go.” She motioned with her hand to her brother for him to join in her encouragements.
“Yes, Maui.” He stood and walked across the room. “The sea air, Angelique. Warmth. You need this, to be out of New York.”
“People, Uncle Barry.” Tears filled Angelique’s eyes at the very thought of all the invitees who might be there. “I can’t bear to be around people. I can’t be cheerful and full of life. All I can do is wish each day to go away. I have no energy for anything else. Not even prayer.” She had done that for days, prayed, and it hadn’t helped.
“You let me worry about the prayers, and remember, these are not just people, sweetie.” Pinky rubbed her daughter’s arm. “These are your family and friends. They won’t expect you to be full of life. They’ll be good for you.”
“Oh, Mum, it’s not Beckie and Heather, or the twins. It’s all the other people who’d be there. Am I supposed to hide away in the resort on our floor, never going outdoors? I can do that here.”
Barry smiled, and new animation crept into his delivery. “I have very good news. The resort called to confirm yesterday. When I explained the situation, they generously offered you their mini-villas just up the coast from the main resort. Of course, they said the villas are much more expensive than the rooms Lucas had reserved, and they could only offer you eight in exchange. They did say two are suites with two bedrooms each, and while that’s not quite the sixteen rooms you currently have in the resort proper, if you could make do, they’ll be glad to set it up. It’s very private, they say.”
Angelique walked to the window and pulled the drapes aside. Hawaii. Maui. That was originally to have been hers and Lucas’ time together, six weeks of bliss without his business interests or friends. She’d been disappointed when he told her about inviting the rest of the wedding party, but he was always so generous. How could she criticize him for what she considered a redeeming quality? So, she’d set that aside and known they’d still have plenty of private time. Now she was being asked to share even the time that was to have been hers and Lucas’ alone, and to not even have her husband there with her at all.
She glanced at her mother. “Can I take Lucas with me? The urn, I mean? Will the airline let me fly with him?”
Her mother laughed nervously and cut her eyes to her brother. “Barry?”
“No, dear Angelique. Lucas must stay behind. I’m sorry.”
Angelique turned back to the window and looked out at the remains of the snow that had toppled the water tower onto her limousine and the man she had married.
“Will you come visit him, Uncle Barry?”
He chuckled. “Every day. I’ll dust him, too.”
Her reply revealed a small portion of the unfairness she felt at her loss. “He doesn’t need dusted, Uncle. However, if I do this, you must leave the heat on. Lucas must be warm. Will you leave the heat on every day?”
With a kiss to her temple, he patted his niece on the shoulder. “Dear, you can afford to pay to run the heat as much as you want. You are a very rich woman, now.”
Tears began to run down her face once again. “I don’t want to be rich, Uncle. I want Lucas.” She did, too, but she also wanted him without Cheeky, all those fraternity brothers, and most certainly without that race car driver who seemed to be involved with a married man—well, a divorced one, now—and who had a son taller than she was.
“I know, baby.” Pinky put her arms around both Barry and her daughter.
“Do I have to take Lucas’ friends?”
“He did invite them,” she pointed out. “However, without Lucas, they may decide to bail out.”
Angelique carefully brushed accumulating moisture from the window glass. Then, with tentative bravado, she whispered, “I’m not certain what I want to do. Not yet, anyway, but I know I want to be away from the snow. Uncle, see who might go with me, and I’ll decide then.” She whipped around to face her mother and uncle, forcing herself to be bright and hopeful. “You two must go. Say you will. You are the ones I want with me.”
Pinky brushed her daughter’s face. “This is your trip, my sweets. Barry and I cannot resolve this for you. Stay here in New York if you must have us, but I feel you’d be better off if you went. Spend time with people your own age. Do this, no matter who goes.”
They all turned as the door to the apartment burst open. In tumbled a scrambling madhouse of sacks and boxes. Angelique glanced at Pinky, who gave a wide-eyed shrug. Then, in the midst of the disarray appeared one pink head of hair and one yellow.
With wide eyes, Beckie and Heather looked at the three somber faces standing in front of the window. “Please tell us Hawaii is still on! We just put our hair back to its natural color, and all these swimsuits! Don’t force us to take them back.” They rushed over to grab Angelique’s arms and pull her toward the bedroom. “We have one for you to try on, Angie, and we won’t even tell you what all we found out about Lucas, or that shemale, Cheeky, if you don’t want to know.”
AS THE VOICES faded behind a quickly closing door, Pinky turned to wink at her brother. “Good idea, Barry. Getting those girls to help out was an astounding solution.”
“Charm, Pinky. I have it, and you know it.” Then he took her arm and held up a plastic card. “Dinner, sister? I have a rich niece who generously offered me this debit card. I guess now I’ll have it for at least six more weeks. How does Bella Luna sound?”
“Deliciously expensive and far away. May I order wine?” She laughed, fluttering her fingers at her throat.
“Only the best, my sweet sister. Besides, your daughter has some packing to do. We can take as long as we like.”
As they were closing the door to the apartment, they heard Angelique screech, “No! I will not wear hot pink!” Pinky and Barry laughed and let the door click shut behind them, confident that Angelique would be nicely distracted during the time they were gone.
Stepping into the silent street, Barry held a hand up and was gratified to see a car pull to a stop. He looked at Pinky. “Shall we, Sister?”
She laughed, tucking her hair behind one ear. “Of, course, Brother.”
Only the car’s taillights were left to wink around a corner, and the street was silent once again.
TREAVOR Daley, Olympic competitor, leaped with abandon from the diving board and flayed the water in a tangle of flying limbs.
Jerrold Ritchey, aspiring actor, cringed.
When Treavor came to the top, he swam easily to the side to grin at his companion, calling out with a laugh, “That was a crazy landing! Get you wet, Jer?” When his friend snorted and shot him an insulting hand gesture, he laughed. “Get over it, Jer. You can’t bring Lucas back. Besides, he only had eyes for Cheeky. You know that. You and Lucas were never going to be a thing. The only reason he spent time with you was for your screen creds.”
“Stop it, Treavor. You were jealous even back in the frat house. You know how much I cared about Lucas. If he hadn’t needed to fulfill the terms of that trust fund, he’d still be here today. I told you he was planning to underwrite me into a starring role on the big screen. I was going to be the next Tom Cruise.” He paused, looking at the back of his nails, his eyes red, and his lips pursed. After a moment, he looked up brightly. “Well, perhaps Leonardo, or maybe even that guy from that werewolf movie.”
“Idiot. That was a vampire movie. The guy just played a werewolf. How are you ever planning to make it big if you don’t even know what Hollywood’s about?”
Jerrold snorted, “I’ve been in Hollywood. Have you forgotten? I did that deodorant commercial.”
“And a whole string of parts as uncredited extras.” Treavor splashed water his direction, laughing. “I guess it’s the dare of a straight player that challenges my libido. I was always attracted to Houston.”
Jerrold laughed, and he threw himself back on his lounge chair. “Look at who’s the idiot. Houston was never interested in any of us, not even Lucas. Not like that. He liked us because he enjoyed spending time with us, that’s all.” He laughed again, kicking his foot playfully at the man floating before him. “Even so, I guess I should have seen you had eyes for the only straight man in the house. No-o, I was always chasing you, just hoping that someday―”
Treavor tossed a handful of water at him and pushed away into the pool. “The trip to Maui is still on. I talked to Houston. He’s still planning on going, and so are Robby and Bobby. I’m rooming with Houston, by the way, so don’t you dare try to butt in.”
“At least I don’t have to imagine Lucas being in bed with that woman.” Jerrold leaned his head back and closed his eyes, letting out a snort. “That was what hurt, you know. I could take him being with Cheeky, but not with a woman.”
“You know he had to do it. He would have lost access to the trust fund if he hadn’t married.”
Jerrold waved the comment away, and then he sat up. “Room with me. I promise I’ll stay on my side of the room. Just room with me, and I’ll go. Please?”
Treavor snorted and sank beneath the water. When he came up, he was next to the diving board. He pulled himself out of the pool and stepped to the board. He called from his perch, “You’ll go if we share, will you? Certain?” A grin tickled the corners of his mouth.
“Good as gold.” Jerrold put his hand up in a two-fingered salute, switched to three, and then back to two. “Scout’s honor, if you room with me.”
“Cannonball!” Treavor sprang from the board and landed as close to Jerrold as he could. This jump his aim was better, and the water in the pool drenched his friend. When he came to the surface, the only thing he saw of Jerrold was a set of wet footprints leading to the exit door.
“GATOR, TELL me about your name.” Houston swirled the ginger ale in his tumbler before setting it on the counter.
Gator laughed. “My name? It’s an old story from grade school.” His drink was stronger than Houston’s, and he took a sip before setting it down. “Nothing to do with the four-legged monster.”
“So,” Houston insisted, “I’m interested, and I’ve got time. By the way, how did you know Lucas? I can’t place you in the old frat house.”
“I wasn’t. The minister and I went to divinity school together, until I dropped out.” He laughed. “He told me the wedding party was getting six weeks in Maui, and it was one groomsman short. Was I interested? Well, I’m not stupid. Everything in the northern hemisphere’s closed this time of year, so maybe I can climb Kilauea. It’s not quite Everest, but if it’s free, then I’m there.”
“You’re a mountain climber?” That interested Houston, as a man who liked adrenalin-laced sports.
He chuckled and picked up his drink. “I like to think so, even if I’m one leg short.”
“One leg short, huh?” Houston laughed. “When I went into racing, an old girlfriend used to tell me I was one lobe short. So I guess that makes us even.” He offered a hand to shake.
“Racing? As in horse?” Gator grabbed the proffered limb and gave it a single pump.
“Formula 1. Bahrain in March. Then Australia, Malaysia, China, and so on.”
“Not Monaco? That’s where I think of when someone mentions Formula 1.”
“There, too. This year I think they’ve moved Monaco to late May, so yeah, it fits somewhere in the lineup. But first, I’m flying directly to Bahrain from Maui—after my six-week layover there, of course. You might want to come along. I’m pretty certain you’ll find some mountains you can climb along the way.”
“Maybe,” and Gator grinned, his eyes focused on his drink. “All that distance between those mountains.” He turned to Houston. “Choppers. That’s my thing.”
“Bikes?” Houston pictured extended chrome forks and fat, black tires.
“No. Helicopters.” He chuckled. “She’s pretty, you know.”
Houston lifted an eyebrow.
“Her mother, too. I like fashion models. I understand her mother was quite famous in her day. You think the bride, you know, might hook up with one of the other guys?”
“Angelique?” Houston snorted. “You don’t know the group, I guess. If you’re going to be in Maui with us, I think you better think about rooming alone. They’re all good men, and I couldn’t ask for better friends, but they’re, well, a bit open-minded.”
“You think, we?” Gator motioned between them, obviously asking about rooming assignments.
Houston shook his head. “Sorry. My brother might come down. Of course he’ll be with me. Otherwise, I’d be glad for the company.”
“Your brother? Was he at the wedding?” Gator took a sip of his drink, then another longer one, setting the empty tumbler on the counter when he finished.
Houston laughed. “You must have seen him and his redheaded son. They look just alike.” When Gator nodded that he had, Houston went on, “I’m hoping he can manage a week or two on the island before he’s off again. His son will be staying with me. The kid wants to hang glide off your mountain―”
“My mountain?” The skeptical response cut Houston off.
“That one in Hawaii. Kill-a-way.”
Gator laughed. “It’s a volcano, Kilauea. I don’t know how good it is for hang gliding, though.”
Houston took a sip of his ginger ale, frowning. “That’s not what I said? Kill-a-way? Anyway, about your name. I’ve got two days before I have to sit in a plane for twelve hours to the middle of the Pacific, so I’ve got time to listen, if you want to tell me the story.”
Gator grinned and shook his head. “I haven’t had to tell this in years, and it’s almost embarrassing that it’s not better.” He took a big swig of his drink and motioned to the bartender for a refill.
“I like embarrassing stories,” Houston encouraged. “Go ahead. It’ll give us something to laugh about when we get to the island. Also, if you want, when you get finished, I’ll tell you of the race in Singapore where I climbed out of my Formula 1 racer, and my pants stayed behind. I sure wish I hadn’t worn red underwear that day.”
Gator looked at him, and his eyes crinkled when he asked, “Your pants stayed behind?” Already his consonants had begun to slur.
“Let’s just say it started in the middle of the night, and a very pretty girl was involved. When I woke up the next morning, my team was putting my helmet on my head, and the race was about to start.”
Gator was laughing by the time the story was finished, and he could barely start his own. “I was a kid, and I’d never use a gate, just climb over the fence. My folks would always ask if I’d please use the gate . . . or was I just planning to climb the fence? Well, that slowly morphed to Gator. See? Gate or fence? Embarrassingly mundane.”
Houston stood and smiled. “Okay, Gate-or-Fence, with that, I’m heading off to my room. Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
Gator nodded once. When he nodded the second time, his forehead hit the bar, and he was out. Houston chuckled and patted him on the shoulder.
As Houston walked away, it was Angelique he was thinking about. She had seemed awfully distraught for someone miraculously released from a marriage of convenience. Surely, Lucas must have told her something; she couldn’t be the only one who didn’t know.
There was one other thing. No one knew if Lucas made out a will before he died. His friends had depended on the man’s generous handouts. As for the missing Ricky? He had once berated Lucas about his irresponsibility with his daughter, and the rift had driven them apart.
It was also late, and Gator was passed out at the bar. It was time for bed, and Houston knew right where his was. After all, the key to his room was in his pocket, right where it belonged.
“HONEY PIE, put the red paint down. Daddy Cheeky needs to create today.” Cheeky kept his voice bright, but his next words bled his anxiety. “I think I may need to actually sell one of these to pay the rent.”
“Tell the paintings that, Daddy Cheeky. They need to know.”
Cheeky pushed his blond hair from his temples, and he sighed dramatically into the room. Raising one hand, he called out into the canvas-filled studio, “Paintings, sell yourselves! The rent is due, and Daddy Cheeky and Squeegie need to eat. I command you!”
The little girl’s hands clapped, and she shrieked her approval. “How funny, Daddy Cheeky!” She reached to Granny Swell to pat her pallid hands together. “Clap, Granny! Clap!”
“Clap?” The old woman’s crinkled eyes brightened, although her voice was strained with age. “There’s a party? Am I the guest of honor? Do I get a present?”
“Yes!” Squeegie cried. She took hold of a small canvas, and she handed it to the old woman. “It’s your birthday, Granny Swell. Be happy!”
Cheeky lunged for the painting. “Not that one, girl! I just finished it. It’s not dry.”
However, before he could get to it, Granny had wiped her hand across it, smearing the oils. Then, laughing, she tried to lick the canvas, and instead, she decorated her hair and face with the brightly colored paints.
Squeegie cheered at the gaily hued results.
When Cheeky dropped to the floor in frustration and despair, putting his hands to his face, Squeegie came and put her arms around him.
“Daddy Cheeky, we have money. Daddy Lucas sent you a check just before you went to his wedding. I saw it, remember? You let me draw your name on the back.”
He pushed her away petulantly. “It’s the last one. Can’t you see that? Daddy Lucas can’t send us another one. We’ll starve!”
“Why can’t he? Daddy Lucas always has money.” She reached inside her pocket and pulled out a small mouse. It struggled, squeaking numerous times.
“What’s that?” Cheeky shrieked at the squirming creature, causing Granny to clutch the painting to her chest in alarm. “Drop it before it bites you!”
“Drop it? I just found it, and I love it very much. I’ll feed it cheese every day for the rest of its life. Just like Granny Swell.” She leaned her head forward and kissed the animal on the tip of its nose.
“Cheese?” Granny’s voice brightened. “This doesn’t taste good. I want cheese.” A trembling hand lifted the canvas from her chest and held it out to Squeegie.
“Granny, you smeared it.” The girl looked at the old woman reprovingly, forgetting her cheers from moments before. “You made two white spots on it. You rubbed the paint all the way off.”
Cheeky knitted his brow. “Let me see, girl. White spots?” He took the painting and turned it one way, and then the other. After a moment, he smiled, and he felt a rush of enthusiasm. “Wonderful! This is wonderful, Granny Swell.” He stood and held out the canvas. “Squeegie, I shall call this masterpiece Mother’s Milk. I must phone the gallery now. They’ve been pressuring me to finish something for months. Sell, I will tell them. They must sell it today. It is absolutely divine.”
Granny giggled. “Please, Squeegie. I would like milk with my cheese. Thank you, dear.”
Her adopted granddaughter laughed and hugged the old woman. “I love you, Granny. I’m so glad I found you under that bridge. I’ll get you cheese.”
“And milk?” The broken voice quavered with hope.
As he went in search of the phone, Cheeky called out, “What a genius idea! Once I sell this, Rio, here I come!” He stopped and called very loudly, looking around and letting his eyes search the ceiling. “Ricky! Wait on me, dear. I don’t have Lucas, anymore. You’re all I have to live for.” He searched the ceiling a moment more, then he sniffled and wiped his eyes as he walked out the door, fingering the small glass vial he now carried everywhere in his pocket.
“DADDY CHEEKY wants to go to Rio.” Squeegie smiled at the mouse. “Do you want to go to Rio?”
“Rio?” Granny sat up straight. She looked around as if she could see the fabled city on the bay right there beside her. “I always wanted to go to Rio. Samba, samba.” She tried very diligently, although unsuccessfully, to snap her fingers.
“Granny Swell,” Squeegie leaned to kiss her on her painted nose, “I don’t think he means to take us.”
Her hands melted to her chest. “No? What will we do, Squeegie?”
“Live under a bridge!” The girl lifted her stray mouse high over her head and twirled around, bumping several canvasses and knocking one over. “That’s right, little mouse, we’ll live under a bridge.” Then she brought it down to peer directly into its eyes. “You’ve been there before, and you survived just fine, didn’t you? So did Granny. We’ll be all right, even if Daddy Cheeky only loves us for Daddy Lucas’ money.”
When she slipped the mouse back into her pocket, she dragged one hand over her eyes, and she turned away so Granny Swell didn’t have to see.
“OH, MUM. You know Sara and Clara can’t just leave school to gallivant off to the islands for six weeks. That scholarship at Yale is too important to them. Beckie and Heather will keep me in fine company.” Angelique dropped her wad of tissues in the trash. “Besides, I’ll have four of Lucas’ friends with me. Maybe I can hook up with one of them, catch one on the rebound, so to speak. You’ve always said I’m quite beautiful. Surely one of them will want me.”
“Angelique!” Her mother’s rebuke was sharp. “That is so crude. At least that blond-headed man won’t be there. I understand he went back to ’Frisco the day after the services. The audacity of that man, begging for some of your husband’s ashes, and money, too. You should have never given him that vial.”
“He wouldn’t let me alone.” She dropped into a chair, closing her eyes at the reminder of the intimacy she had witnessed between Lucas and Cheeky. “I just wanted him gone, Mumsy. He was begging, you remember.”
“Well, dear, you are packed, and your Uncle Barry and I are very glad to see you’re willing to take this trip in spite of all your troubles. A fresh place and friendly faces will do you well. You didn’t take those swimsuits out again? You’ll swim while you are there.”
A deep breath and an even deeper sigh preceded Angelique’s answer. “Mummy, those are not swimsuits. The best they can be called are stringsuits. They’re more string than suit.”
Pinky laughed. “I’ve been on the runway in less, my poor, depressed daughter. Besides, your villas are very private. The resort has said so. Now stand. The snow is gone, but it’s still very chilly outside. You’ll want your jacket on.”
A beeping horn outside caught their attention, and glancing through the sheers, a yellow-painted cab could be seen maneuvering to the curb. The trunk popped open, and a man in a dark sports cap climbed out to wait.
“Go! Go!” Pinky cried. “I’ve got your extra case.” Then, as they reached the car and the driver loaded the items into the back, she lovingly placed her China doll-perfect hands on either side of her daughter’s face. “Sweetie, I cannot believe this has happened to you. I wanted you to be so happy, and you would have, too. Your life would have been perfect. Now you’ll have to find that happiness all over again. You can do this, Angelique. Grieve, God, yes! Go down there and cry until your eyes burn. Then, please, for your mother, put on those stringsuits Beckie and Heather brought you, and frolic in the sun. I love you, my little sweet flower.” She threw her arms around her daughter.
“I love you, too, Mummy. I don’t know if I can frolic, but I’ll give it my best.” Then she laughed. “Beckie and Heather will probably have me hang gliding the first day. Will that do for a frolic?”
Her mother kissed her on the forehead. “Parasailing, girl. It’s Hawaii.” A chuckle accompanied the words. “Even if you can hang glide there, you’ll want to stick to parasailing. Trust me.”
“Mum.” Angelique brushed her mother’s face with a smile. “You’ve become modern. You know parasailing.”
“Go. We’ve said our prayers, and now you must go.” Pinky pushed her daughter into the cab with a bright smile. “Maui awaits.”
THE ISLAND did, too, along with two girlfriends sporting neon-colored hair, a Formula 1 race car driver, a mountain climber, an Olympic hopeful, and one actor who had starred in a commercial with Angelique many years ago. Oh, a redheaded brother and his son would also be there, but that wouldn’t surprise her too much. After all, the man had left his wife for the Formula 1 driver, and the boy called them both Dad.
The real surprise would be Cheeky, accompanied by a senile, homeless grandmother, and an eight-year-old girl. Also, no trip to Hawaii would be complete without a rooster. Yes, a Maui rooster would be there, too, and that would ice the cake.
“WHERE CAN she be?” Jerrold listened to the sound of yet another departing jet as his paper ticket worried the pocket in his jacket. He was nervous about the upcoming trip, and he’d insisted on a printed version. All he could think about now was what might be in Lucas’ will. If Angelique didn’t show, then what was the point?
“Look. There she is.” Treavor had on thin cotton chinos in spite of the cold New York January sparkling just outside. He crossed his legs and let one foot bounce in the air. His ankles were bare, and he wore tri-color boaters on his feet. “I wonder if she brought a copy of the will.”
Jerrold patted his arm, causing his companion to frown. “I don’t care if she has a copy. I just want to know if I’m in it.”
“Don’t touch the arm, Jer. You know better. People might see.” He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
“I’m in the same boat, you might remember. It’s hard when all the world has to think we’re walking the straight and narrow. Houston over there is lucky with those race cars. How macho would that make someone?”
Treavor laughed and stood. “I might decide to get married someday. I could have a son—or a daughter. Think of it, me with a baby.”
Jerrold kicked Treavor’s shin with his foot. “You could not do that, and you know it. You’re being ridiculous.”
“Lucas did.” Treavor narrowed his eyes at him. “That wild-child Squeegie. She’s his.”
“Surrogate mother, stupid. That’s probably why she’s like she is. Don’t take a chance. Just room with me like you promised, okay? Please, Treavor?” Then he kicked his friend’s leg once again with a sly grin.
“I thought, maybe with Houston―” It was a clear tease.
“Riley’s rooming with Houston.”
“Riley! He wasn’t in the wedding party. Why would he be going?”
“Maui, stupid! His son, too. Besides, Houston’s his brother. I’d room with Houston if he were my brother.”
Treavor took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The happy trio.” Then he looked at his seatmate with a grin of undisguised anticipation. “I heard that Riley got divorced. Do you think, maybe―” There was one more quick jab to his leg. “What was that for, Jer?” He grimaced as he reached to rub his shin.
“You know better. Give it up, Treavor. You’re with me this trip.”
About that time, a whistle interrupted their discussion. When they turned, two very pretty women on the far side of the lounge area winked at them and motioned with their fingers. One touched her palm to her lips and blew the men a kiss.
Treavor turned to Jerrold and grinned. “Nice. I might just do that, get married after all. Come with me?” He jerked his head toward the women.
Jerrold sank farther into his seat. “Not a chance.”
“Your loss,” Treavor quipped. He straightened his collar and stepped away.
“You have a flight in one hour.” The warning words shot after the departing man.
“Right, right,” he called back.
Jerrold turned to a hand on his shoulder, and Houston sat beside him.
“Always picking up women, huh?” He laughed. “Treavor’s always been the ladies’ man.”
“That’s not who he likes, though. You know that, Houston.” Jerrold leaned forward in his seat and rubbed his hands together, refusing to look at the Formula 1 driver.
Houston guffawed at his remark. “Still? I thought I was just a college fling.”
“You didn’t ever . . . did you?” He turned and caught the man’s crystal blue eyes, locking his gaze there in disbelief. “Treavor keeps talking like you might―”
Houston’s hand slapped the other man’s shoulder hard, and Jerrold winced. “You know better, man. You guys are my friends, and I love you like brothers. However, I’m a skirt man. Just like any good family, I don’t sleep with my brothers. Hanging out’s good enough for me.”
“Treavor wants to room with you in Maui. Did he tell you that?”
“No.” He smiled. “I expected it, though. I wouldn’t mind, either, except Riley is coming―”
“So Treavor said.”
“—and he’s bringing his boy. God, I love that boy.”
“Dad Two, right?”
Houston grinned and slapped him on the shoulder again, more gently this time. “Treavor’s good, you know.” He pointed to where the man, tall, good-looking, and toned, was sandwiched between the two women from earlier. They were laughing, obviously enjoying his charm very much. Occasionally Treavor looked to see if he could catch Jerrold’s eyes.
“At what?” He waved at his friend’s grin.
“Timing. He can vamp it up with those two women, sign an autograph if they recognize him, and he can run away to board his flight, the perfect straight man. Those women are certainly convinced.”
“He wants to get married.”
“Like Lucas?” Houston raised his eyebrows. “Marriage can be very dangerous. Lucas found that out. I hope Treavor knows what he’s doing.”
Jerrold ran a hand through his hair. “I think he wants a kid.”
“Tell him to adopt. In fact, we’ll be there together for six weeks. I’ll tell him myself . . . oh, I see Riley. Catch you on the plane, Jerrold. By the way, I’m looking forward to all of us being together again. This’ll be like old times.” Then he paused. “Except for Lucas, that is.” His body was suddenly jarred with the impact of a red-haired boy crashing into him.
“Uncle Houston—Dad Two, I mean—I’ve missed you!” The tall boy looked like a slender, wiry man on the outside, but his actions said all kid inside. “I brought my harness.”
Jerrold raised his eyebrows. “Harness?”
“Oh, hello, Uncle Jerrold.”
Houston laughed. “Live with it, Jerrold. You haven’t seen much of the kid, but he knows all of you by Uncle. Tell him about the harness, Buzz.”
“Hang gliding. That’s what I want to do, maybe windsurfing, if I can. Can I, Dad Two? Please? Dad One says it’s okay with him if you don’t mind.”
“My opinion counts? Why’s your father letting me have a say?” Houston grinned, glancing at Jerrold and winking.
“In two weeks Dad has to be in South Africa for a conference.”
“On what? He didn’t say anything to me.” Teasing, again.
“Nanoscale spin-wave buses as a mechanism for logic and data something or the other.”
Houston groaned. “That’s computer talk, right?”
“Yeah,” the boy grinned. “Tiny computers, like you can’t even see them. Hang gliders are better. Can I? Windsurf?”
“Let’s go talk to your dad. See you, Jerrold.” Houston turned to wave.
“Windsurfing, Uncle Jay.” Buzz shot him a thumbs-up. “You don’t want to miss it.”
As they walked away, Jerrold mumbled to himself, “Uncle Jay? Uncle Jay?” Another hand slapped him on the shoulder, and he looked up.
“Uncle Jay?” Treavor dropped into the seat next to him. “The kid called you that?”
Jerrold slapped him beside the knee, and he made sure it was hard. “Don’t you tell me not to touch, either. You deserved that. The kid also said we’re both going windsurfing with him, Uncle Tee.” He shot him a look of satisfaction. However, he was disappointed when the swimmer’s face lit up.
“Uncle Tee? That’s rich! I love it. And windsurfing? I always wanted to do that. Boy, I love that kid.”
“You are a goof. So, what happened to your marriage prospects?”
“Already married.” He grinned. “It was perfect. I can enjoy their company, and they don’t expect anything more. Usually, anyway.” He was interrupted by two brightly coiffed women talking very loudly as they surged into the lounge amidst a wave of unknown people arriving to board the flight. “Are those Angelique’s friends?” Treavor pointed.
The women’s arrival seemed to be the signal for everyone to gather together to enjoin their fellow passengers. Searching the crowded terminal, pink-haired Beckie called out in a high-pitched squeal, “Angelique? Is that you? Did you pack those string bikinis? We brought you some extras just in case. Do you want to see?”
In the crowd, an arm waved.
Beckie poked Heather, and her yellow-haired friend reached in Beckie’s purse to thrust a dangling, vivid green wad of cloth and string into the air. Beckie called, “Do you like it, Angie?”
“I have a purple one just like it.” Heather’s lower-pitched voice purred, smooth and sultry next to Beckie’s, but the excitement was the same. Then Heather shifted the green cloth, and a silver flask flashed into view. “Party!”
Together, they harmonized, “We’re going to Hawaii!”
The remnants of the honeymoon party following the pair through the door included the mostly unknown and roguishly craggy Gator Gallagher. It was quickly agreed by the men that this might be quite a plane ride, indeed; they had twelve hours yet to fly, and that didn’t include a California layover along the way.
ANGELIQUE reclined in the airliner’s expansive leather seat, while the real party went on several rows ahead. They were in the upper tier of the aircraft, with a lounge and a private bar. It seemed Lucas had booked this entire section of the cabin for the wedding party.
Pity it was half empty.
“Being in this section of the plane does give you special privileges, you know. The First Class of First Class.”
She looked up to see the flight attendant sit on the arm of the empty seat just in front of her, and the trimly uniformed woman glanced around at the merrymaking.
“It all belongs to your party. Your drinks are included, also.”
“Just ginger ale for me,” Angelique murmured. “I’m not in a rush, though.” The attendant was being so pleasant that it seemed a shame not to request something.
After a moment, the attendant ventured to observe, “You seem very blue. Is something wrong?”
A yellow-haired Heather leaned in and giggled an answer to that question. “Her husband got killed by a frozen water tower. We’re on the way to the honeymoon.” Then her eyes widened, and she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, that wasn’t funny at all. I don’t know why I’m laughing. I think I need another drink.” She giggled again and wandered off down the aisle.
“That really happened?” When Angelique nodded, the attendant put her hand to her chin, leaving the tips of her fingers covering her mouth. “I’m so sorry about your husband.” She reached out to touch Angelique’s hand in sympathy, then with the polish of much practice at her job, she attempted to divert the conversation to a pleasanter topic. “The happy couple? The ones that got married, who are they?” Her eyes roved the merrymakers. Looking to Angelique, only seeing her distress grow more pronounced, she laughed. “Not you, surely.”
Angelique nodded, her eyes burning once again, and she looked away. “On the day of the wedding.”
“How horrible!” The attendant slid into the seat next to her. “When?”
“A week ago. His name was Lucas.”
“Lucas?” The attendant frowned. Then her eyes opened wide. “Frequent flier Lucas? Abercrombie? Oh, my word!” She stood and turned away for a moment before looking back to her. “Killed by a water tower? He flew with us all the time.”
Angelique nodded, surprised this woman knew him. “We were leaving the reception the day after last week’s blizzard. He was in the limousine waiting for me, and the tower just fell off the building across the street and onto the car.”
“How horrible! Did anyone see it happen?” The woman touched her fingers to her mouth again.
Angelique nodded, her eyes once more growing gritty. She rubbed along the bottom of one, not wishing to cry, not here in front of this woman.
“Not you? Don’t tell me you actually had to see that.”
Tears began to flow down Angelique’s cheeks. From that point on, the overwhelming feeling of sorrow was unstoppable.
“You poor baby. Funny, I never thought of him as the marrying type.” She looked at Angelique, handing her a tissue from a packet that seemed to come out of nowhere. “Don’t get me wrong, Lucas was a charmer. Everyone loved him. And he never tried to hit on any of the female attendants. That was a relief. So many good-looking men do.” She paused, and her eyes widened. “Although, now that I think of it, he did have one trip when his hotel was overbooked, and he had to stay the weekend with Frederick.” She smiled. “Poor, poor Frederick.”
“Who’s Frederick?” Lucas had never mentioned a Frederick.
The attendant winked at her, somehow relieved. “Frederick’s on our San Francisco run, and he’s as sweet as they come, even if he is a bit, you know. Now it’s clear all his fancy bragging the next week was just bravado. Ha!” She winked again. “Lucas was too the marrying type, no matter what Frederick said.”
Angelique remembered Cheeky. This didn’t seem amusing to her.
“You must be really special to have snagged Lucas. I so hate to hear this news.” A hand waved for the flight attendant’s attention several rows up. “Oh, there, I have someone to attend to. Will you be okay by yourself a bit? I’ll bring your ginger ale in a moment. Will that be all right?”
Angelique nodded. “Certainly. Your waving hand needs you.” She pointed to the man whose face once more needed a shave. He was stubbly again, and it seemed to be permanent this time.
The attendant touched her arm. “Thank you, dear. I’ll be right back with that drink.” She smiled and walked off.
Angelique closed her eyes, and after a moment, she felt a cold glass against her forehead.
“For you,” a deep voice intoned melodramatically. “To assuage your grief.”
“What?” She looked up to see Houston standing over her. “The stewardess, um, flight attendant―” Flustered, her words escaped her.
“She wanted to bring this to you. I snatched it away. I’ve hardly spoken to you since the, um, incident, and I happened to notice you’re the only sober member of this party, excluding the boy. He’s thirteen and can’t drink, or I suppose he’d be soused, too.”
“Your son.” She sat up, forcing a smile, glad for his company. This man was very good looking, even though he was clearly taken. It didn’t matter, anyway. Men like him didn’t bother with women, and even if he did, Lucas had just died. The stress of that alone was all she could handle, no matter how lonely she felt.
Company, though, she could use.
“In a manner of speaking,” he responded, his voice pleasant and warm. “On this trip, anyway. Still, I’m proud to claim him. He’s a good kid, even if he is a bit tall for his age. Maybe we can turn him into a basketball player. However, all he seems interested in are motorcycles and hang gliding. Well, windsurfing, too, now that we’re on the way to Maui.” He gently touched the arm of her seat, his hand not quite against hers. His gesture seemed casual and very unintentional. “This was thoughtful of Lucas to do this, by the way. It’s great of you to carry out this last wish for all his friends to be together.”
“Lucas was always so generous.” She whispered her response as she looked at the seatback in front of her, uncomfortably aware of how soothing this man’s voice sounded.
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? I won’t if you’d rather not.”
“Personal?” She looked at him. He even smelled good, and that seemed rather unfair in the light of being the only one on the flight who had bothered to speak more than a few words to her, other than the attendant. “Sure, go ahead. I can always refuse to answer.”
He smiled. “You can at that. Actually, the question isn’t mine. Some of the others, though, have some concerns.” He lowered his voice, although no one seemed to be listening. “It’s none of their business, really, but it might ease their minds. There’s a rumor that you and Lucas had a civil ceremony previously.”
She nodded. It wasn’t something she saw any reason to hide. “Lucas insisted. He said there were legal issues he needed to get the lawyers on, transferring assets or something.” She laughed roughly. “He was rather vague about it, hinting the lawyers might interrupt the honeymoon if the actual marriage was during the wedding ceremony. It seems the honeymoon got rather rudely interrupted, anyway.”
“It does seem so.” He paused for a minute, and then he softly interjected, “You act as if you really cared for Lucas.”
Her pent up disappointments and frustrations hissed from her. “Act? You think I’m acting? We were getting married. I loved the man with all my heart, and now he’s gone. I have nothing left.” Her anger melted away as quickly as it had come, spent in her outburst. “I want him back.”
“I spoke out of turn, and I apologize. Do you want me to leave?”
“No, please. Ask your question.” Her eyes were on his hand. A fraction of an inch closer, and they’d be touching. She could feel the touch already. Of course she didn’t want him to leave.
“Okay, here goes. I’m sure with the civil ceremony several weeks behind you, all the arrangements were in place. The money you were to receive, I mean.”
She snorted. “I did okay.” She emphasized the word okay, making it clear she didn’t feel her husband’s death was a fair trade in any way. “I’d rather have Lucas, though. I didn’t know he had money when I met him, not real money. I make enough I could have supported us both if it had come down to it. The money was more important to him than it was to me.” She remembered his comments at the reception, murmuring, “I think it was very important to Lucas.” She continued louder, “The trust fund, you did know about it, didn’t you?” He nodded. “I had no idea how much it was worth, really I didn’t. He told me a bit about it after the ceremony that day, but even then I had no real concept of the size. Houston, I just miss him.” She impulsively grabbed the hand at her side, pulling it to press it to her face. Under other circumstances, she would have never dreamed of such an act. However, this one night, she needed someone to touch, and this man was the only sober one on the airplane.
He was also the only one at her side.
IN THAT touch, Houston froze. Her sudden, unexpected action electrified his body’s nerve endings, both in his brain as well as in other places he didn’t dare let his thoughts dwell on just at that moment. After all, they were on an airplane with almost a dozen of the wedding party, and this woman was the widow of his very good friend. He was mortified.
However, behind that, something else hovered in his mind. It was highly unlikely this marriage would have ever been consummated. Lucas had known back in college he could get access to all the money on his twenty-first birthday if he had a family by then, and rather than get married, he had made a point to arrange for a surrogate mother.
For his child, Lucas had gone to some high-priced clinic, and in some private back room somewhere, the man had provided his share of the goods that had eventually gone to the surrogate mother. Nine months later, he’d received a call from his lawyers that his daughter was ready.
He’d done that at twenty, conveniently timing it so she’d be ready on his twenty-first birthday, just after graduation from college. However, to his dismay, even with DNA verification, the lawyers had conveniently discovered—after much diligent searching—that it wasn’t just a family he needed. He had to be married. By then, he was stuck with the baby, and had farmed the child out to his elderly great-aunt, paying her to assume full legal custody. Had he loved her? Houston certainly thought so, at least after a fashion. He just hadn’t been willing to raise her.
However, after the elderly relative’s death three years before, Cheeky had “offered” to take the girl for a small “maintenance fee,” enough to cover the monthly cost of an art studio, accepting full legal custody as part of the deal, although it was Ricky in Rio who had always loved the girl.
Then, greedy for greater access to his funds, Lucas had put the marriage gambit into motion. He had always liked to play games, but this time he’d played one too many, and the final one he’d lost.
Yet, it seemed this woman had lost something, too, even with all she had apparently gained.
A familiar voice jarred him back onto the airplane.
“Dad Two. Buzz calling Houston. How’s the weather down there? Come on, Dad, we want you to tell that joke about the race car and the red underwear. Gator said you already told him earlier.” The skinny boy brushed his hand over Houston’s hair, rumpling it.
Houston turned and pulled his hand from Angelique’s, strongly aware of just how attracted he’d been to her touch. His heart pounded in guilt over that—not desire, he told himself—as she smiled and lifted her hands to wipe her eyes once he backed away. He put his arm around his nephew’s shoulders to steady his knees.
When he forced a laugh at the boy’s description of the red underwear incident, it came out cracked and dry. “Son, that little thing with the girl and the underwear? Well, it was no joke. That was me, and it really happened.” It was a forced admission; however, he would say anything if it took his mind off Angelique.
Buzz turned red, even under his freckles, and he ducked his head. “You mean you really, um, were with her, um, and you spent the night in your race car? You really raced the next day in red underwear?”
Houston pulled his arm up around the boy’s neck, and he tucked him in close as they moved up the aisle. “Yes, yes, and yes, and for your information, you’re thirteen. You keep your clothes on, young man. I was just showing her the car, it happened to be dark, and well, things happen sometimes.”
“Was she pretty?” The boy’s face had turned beet red.
Houston chuckled. “Very, Buzz. They didn’t come any prettier.”
“Even Angelique?” He ribbed his uncle with his elbow. “Gator said you needed to be distracted, so I should ask you about the girl and the red underwear. You think Angelique’s pretty?”
“Very,” he conceded. “However, that’s between you and me.”
ANGELIQUE’S head was nestled into the coolness of a gel pillow, the partying having long quieted down. Sleep had taken its time coming, and her dreams had been fitful.
The flight attendant gently shook her arm. “Honey, the plane’s landing. Honey.”
“Are we there?” She opened her eyes, only to find glimpses of early morning sky through the windows.
“Just about.” She took the empty glass from the drink holder in the armrest. “Honey, I need you to fasten your seatbelt, all right? Try to come awake before we hit the runway. Ricardo up there, that’s the pilot, well, he’s pretty good, but sometimes he bounces a few times. I don’t want you to be surprised.” She smiled at her and moved on to the next group of travelers.
Looking out a window, Angelique could see dawn just breaking across the distant line of the ocean. Hawaii. Glancing around the cabin, she saw several of her party rousing, more than one obviously hung over. When Houston caught her eye, he grinned and nodded, flipping his thumb up. She smiled at him, remembering last night’s conversation.
The boy was standing, his shirt and jeans rumpled where he’d slept in them. He turned to his father, Dad Two, and said something quick and pointed. Immediately, he burst into a laugh, hitting the back of the headrest in front of him with his hand as he fell into his own seat. Someone with bright pink hair in the seat he hit must have complained, because the boy sat back quickly, causing Houston to laugh.
That pink hair was Beckie’s, Angelique knew.
She smiled when the attendant tried to wake the Olympic swimmer, Treavor. He was sprawled across two seats, and in one of the seats curled Jerrold from her deodorant commercial. He had his fingers in the swimmer’s hair, and she laughed at that. It was one of the reasons she didn’t drink. Strange things happened when too much alcohol entered a person’s bloodstream. She hoped he wasn’t too embarrassed when he woke.
Gator was chatting blearily with Beckie and Heather, his hands on their knees. Maybe Angelique did still know them pretty well. They didn’t seem to have changed too much since college after all, and anyway, she could see the appeal in that man. His rugged good looks were only strengthened by a night of additional stubble.
She looked for Houston’s significant other, finding him when the lavatory door opened, and he stepped out. In the odd light of the airplane cabin, she was intensely aware of just how much he and the boy looked alike. It seemed amusing for a child to have two parents and only resemble one. Rather, she corrected herself, how could he look identical to one and be so unlike the other? Then she shook her head, coming fully awake. No boy could really have two fathers and look like both. However, watching the tall, redheaded man exit the restroom made her aware of just how long she’d been sitting in her seat.
She motioned to the attendant. “Miss, do you think I have time to visit the lavatory?”
“It was occupied a moment ago. I can check for you. We have a few minutes, yet.” She smiled and began to fold a blanket from one of the empty seats.
“Oh, I’m sure that one just down the aisle is vacant. That redheaded man, Riley, just came out of that one. On the left.”
“Mr. Richemont? I haven’t seen . . . oh, there he is. Yes.” The attendant smiled brightly upon locating him.
“Not Houston, miss. I mean the father of the, er, the other father of the boy, the one that looks like him. He’s the one I saw.” She shook her head at her description. It had nothing to do with the restroom, anyway, so it didn’t really matter.
The attendant laughed. “I understand your confusion. They’re both named Richemont. The sign shows it’s unoccupied. Hurry, though, dear. The seatbelt light will be on soon.”
Snapping her belt loose, Angelique stepped to the lavatory and closed the door behind her. Even having known the situation between Houston and Riley, she’d been very attracted to the man who had come to her side the previous evening. Loneliness, perhaps, the conversation, or whether it had just been the proximity of a man, she didn’t know. When Houston had stepped to her, he had felt like a man who enjoyed the company of a woman, but if he and Riley had actually taken the same last name, then there was no doubt of their involvement with each other. They were a family unit—of sorts—and that told her very clearly that even if he was friendly and seemed concerned about her troubles, it was no more than the warm concern of a considerate person, and she could never take it further.
For some odd reason, that made her cry, and she forgot all about the reason she had entered the lavatory. She leaned her head against the door and let the tears run down her face. She was truly alone on this trip to paradise, and at that exact moment, she wished she hadn’t come.
“Dear God in Heaven,” she prayed in a hushed whisper, her voice crushed and desperate. “I want to be home with Pinky and Uncle Barry. Oh, Mummy, I want you. I don’t want to be here.”
Then a knock came at the door, and the attendant called to her, “Honey? The sign just came on. Finish up so we can land.”
She wiped her face, and she took a deep breath before splashing her hands in the sink and responding brightly, “Just a moment. I’m drying my hands.”
“All right, honey.” Then there was silence.
She was angry with herself as she exited back to her seat, though. She still needed to go, and now she’d have to wait until after the plane landed. Then, once she was seated, the feeling was even worse. The pilot did bounce the wheels a few times, and each time he did, she let out a little yelp of alarm. From that point on, getting off the airplane and finding a restroom was all she could think about, no matter how badly the previous week had gone. Sometimes, priorities had to come into play, and right then, finding a restroom was one of them.
“Dear God,” she prayed in a slightly different vein, her whisper so quiet she hoped no one else heard. “Just don’t let me leak. I’ll be nice to both the Richemonts, rather, all three of them, and I’ll even frolic with Beckie and Heather on the beach. God, I’ll even hang glide with the boy. Just don’t let me leak.”
Exiting, the others left her alone, perhaps thinking her tears were for Lucas. However, for once they would have been very wrong. The tears that pooled in her eyes as she exited the airplane were for the pressure she felt between her legs.
“Dear God, please,” she moaned once again in desperation, moving gingerly into the terminal itself, and then her tears really began to roll.
ANGELIQUE stepped into the warmth of the Hawaiian sun. At least she’d made it to the restroom, and there had been no accidents along the way. For that, she was grateful.
“Angie, you’re ours.” Beckie had already found an empty cab, and she pulled her friend into one of the three taking them to the resort. “You know how to be quiet so my head doesn’t explode.”
“I do, huh? You poor thing.” She wasn’t exactly filled with sympathy. Still, she knew the puddle jumper from the airport in Honolulu had been hard on all their hangovers, and all they wanted right now was silence.
“Heather,” Beckie called. With that word, her face took on a pained expression. By a wave of her hand, she motioned her inside, and then she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “Dear Father, Jesus, and Mary, I wish I’d had more self-control on that airplane.”
Heather, her yellow hair visibly rumpled, fell into the seat beside them, trapping Angelique in the middle, and then she stiffened with a groan. “My head!”
A knock came on the window, and the two hung-over women jumped and grabbed with their hands for some sort of purchase. They found it just between them, and it was Angelique.
“Ouch,” she cried. “Beckie! Heather! Let go of me! I’m not a handhold. Good heavens!”
Gator leaned into the opening, grinning. “Aha! I definitely want to ride in this car. May I join you, ladies?”
Angelique snorted. “Well, I have to get unencumbered, first. What about riding with Houston? You two seemed to be chumming up earlier.” She put her friends’ hands back in their respective owners’ laps.
He sighed. “Riley and the boy. The three are riding together. Peas in a pod, so to speak.”
She smiled. “I remember. The three Richemonts. They seem to be inseparable.”
“You don’t know the half of it, I’m afraid.” He chuckled. “I was invited to room with Houston, if he was available, but his other half is here, so that cuts me out.”
“Oh . . . if he was available.” He picked up strange men—if he was available.
“Shh! Angelique! Our heads!” Beckie and Heather chimed in as one.
She frowned at them, continuing, “It’s just as well Riley showed. It’ll keep the man honest while here on the island. The third car? Who has it? Geritol?” She laughed, embarrassed at her slip. “I’m sorry. There’s a story behind that. Jerrold, I mean, and his friend?”
“The swimmer? Yeah, Treavor, I believe. I’ll pay for a fourth cab if you want, just for you and me . . . .” He motioned with his hand, pointing to her and then to himself. When she didn’t respond, he continued, “More room for the hangovers. You’d really be doing the ladies a favor.” He smiled in encouragement.
“Sure, let me climb out. Excuse me, Beckie, Heather. You can have this whole back seat.” It was crowded in the cab, and his offer did make sense. They groaned, refusing to do more than simply sink farther into the seats, but once Gator had the door open, his helping hand made it easier.
“Ah,” he said, winking. “You’ll make for very good company. Look. Our car. The driver is holding it for me.” He touched her elbow and motioned with his free hand.
She turned to see a black stretch limousine on the opposite side of the street. When she turned pale, he grabbed her arm to steady her.
“What is it?”
“Gator . . . I can’t ride in that. The car Lucas was in . . . . You must understand. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s the color, isn’t it?” He smiled. “Let me see if another color is available.”
“No.” She put her hand to her forehead and sighed, suddenly very tired, and wishing she hadn’t said anything. “I can ride in a black car. I do have to deal with this, although I’d hoped I could put it off for another year—or two or three.” She laughed weakly. “It’s already been a week, though, and I am having better moments. Not better days, just better moments. I cringe to think what I’d be like if we’d already been on the honeymoon when this happened.”
Or, she thought, if she hadn’t seen Cheeky kissing on Lucas—and then Lucas hugging him back. Somehow, over the past week, that memory had become a thorn she hadn’t been able to get out from under her skin.
Gator beamed with excitement. “Let me tell the guys in the last cab.” He slapped the side of the limo, and almost dancing, he made his way with an awkward gait to the last car and back again.
“Now tell me,” she quizzed after he returned. “You don’t seem to have a hangover. I saw you pretty tipsy last night.”
He stepped in after her and closed the door, a grin still on his face. “Hollow leg.” He slapped his left knee. “I can drink ’til the cows come home, and I never get hung. Not for long, anyway. Lucky me.”
“Lucky you, indeed. You must let me bill the car to the room, or villas, if you want me to be accurate.” She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “This is really wonderful, and the black isn’t so bad. Thank you for offering to share.”
“You’re welcome. However, villas? I was certain I was told that an entire floor in the resort was reserved for the wedding party. That has changed?”
“Villas. We now have mini-villas farther up the coast. I think we have eight.”
“Are we choosing our own, or are they assigned?”
“Your choice. My uncle set it up, so I don’t dare ask you to trust my numbers, but most have one bedroom, and a couple have two. I think the three Richemonts should get one of the bigger units, otherwise the boy will be forced to toss and turn on a sofa sleeper. For six weeks? I don’t think so. That leaves at least eight additional beds. We’ll be fine, I think.”
“Are you sharing?”
She frowned at the question. “Of course not. I’m here to be alone—or as alone as I can be with the whole wedding party following me down.” She waved her hand at him. “Oh, don’t mind me. My husband was killed, and now I’m here with his friends. What kind of honeymoon is that? I’ll probably be crabby the entire time. Just ignore me.”
“Lucas’ friends? You’ve also got those two neon nymphs you were with, and I didn’t know Lucas. I hardly think I count as one of his friends.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Why did you come, then?” She sighed, exasperated with her continued bumbling. “That sounded horrible. You are most welcome and will continue to be welcome at our little beachfront party. Now, why did you come if you didn’t know him?”
“Blame Houston. He told me there was a mountain I could climb. I told him it was a volcano.”
“On Maui? I’ve spent time here before, and I didn’t know there was one that was climbable. You can hike all the ones on the island.”
“That’s on the Big Island, Hawaii. I remember enough of the topography to know that. You’ll have to fly over. You can hike Kilauea, too, but it’s not as picturesque as what you’ll find on Maui. You might like that better. Mauna Kea’s probably your best bet for steep grade.” She paused for a moment, thinking of travel brochures she had once looked over on a previous visit. The name of one place had struck her as especially beautiful. “The Valley of the Kings. Try there.”
“The Valley of the Kings?”
“Waipi′o Valley. It’s very remote, so plan to take a four-wheel-drive. Bill the room for all your expenses. There’s enough of my husband’s money to pay for it—my money, I should say. Sorry. Still, bill the room, no matter what it costs.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you. Do you climb?”
“Only the stairs. All I want to do on this trip is mope, be miserable, and cry at least three times a day. I don’t expect to be good company for anyone. Sorry.”
She closed her eyes, and let the comfort of the limousine carry her in silence to her destination, grateful for Gator’s thoughtful consideration.
“BOBBY! You have to come see!” Robby, one of the Lanier twins, stood on the front lanai of his mini-villa with binoculars to his face, looking at the road winding down the valley. The villas Uncle Barry had traded for were tucked into the side of a hill verdant with tropical greenery. The twins were lodged in Hydrangea Villa. Plantings kept the individual courtyards private, but the Laniers’ balcony provided a sweeping view of the roofs of the different buildings and the road leading up to them. “It’s a limo with a z-e-n-e. Black, and probably forty feet long. Houston, you think?” Four cars could be seen stirring up a dusty trail, with the black stretch last in line.
Bobby joined him. Both men were of medium height with sandy hair, and had dazzling green eyes that sparkled in aquiline features.
“Gator.” Bobby ran a hand through his hair. “I saw him looking at Angelique. He had eyes for her, and what with poor, poor Lucas not even a week dead.”
“Oh, B-Bob. You are so not good with numbers. Eight days. I counted each one. One for not making payroll. Two for the electric bill that Lucas would’ve paid. Three for new inventory we can no longer afford. Four for travel expenses. Do I need to go on? I’ve been overtaxed with stress for the entire week. Do you think Lucas left us any money?”
“Who knows? You think Angelique’s interested? Already? Good God, Lucas just died.” The cars were pulling up to a stone courtyard centered with a luxurious fountain.
“She didn’t really marry him. She had to know it was all about the money.” He patted his brother’s cheek. “Grow up and smell the roses.”
Pink-haired Beckie emerged from the first car, putting on great, round sunglasses that hid half her face. From the other side of the car, yellow-haired Heather climbed slowly out, her eyes already guarded by slits of jet-black glass. Both paused and looked around, and finally, Heather worked her fingers into her hair. When she drew them out, she let her forehead fall against the top of the cab and stood there in the brilliant, mid-morning sun.
Robby elbowed his brother and grinned.
When a skinny, redheaded boy leaped from the second cab and jumped into the air pumping his fist, his shout of triumph could be heard on the villa’s balcony. Houston and Riley emerged more slowly, stretching and yawning. Riley slipped on trendy sunglasses, while his brother pulled out mirrored aviators.
Bobby grinned. “We might see some romance in Paradise after all.” He ran his hands over his head as his brother chuckled. “If Treavor and Jerrold get out of that next car, that means Gator and Lucas’ ex are already hooked up.”
Just about then, Houston caught sight of the two men on the hillside. “Robbo! B-Bob! I didn’t know you were here, already. How are the rooms?”
“Not too shabby.” They yelled down, waving as the others turned to look up at them. “Angelique and Gator?”
Houston pointed to the limo and grinned. “Behind the tint.”
Bobby rolled his eyes. He ribbed his brother. “Cha-cha, little bro. Romance might be happening tonight.”
“Little bro, my foot.” Robby grabbed his brother around the neck and began to rub his knuckles into the other man’s sandy-haired scalp. “I’m the oldest, and you’d better not forget it.”
“Get off, Robbo. I just had my hair done. Besides, you might be older, but I’m better looking.” He pulled his head away and glared at him.
“Robby to you, B-Bob. Only Houston gets to call me Robbo.”
He laughed. “Robbo. Robbo.” Then he ducked into the villa just as his brother lunged for him.
RILEY CALLED to Houston over the top of the cab, pointing up the hill, “What was that about?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “Live with ’em in a frat house for a few years, and you quit asking. Just let it go, Riley. That’s the only way to love ’em.”
Buzz called loudly and with excitement, “Hang gliding, anyone? Please? Anyone?” He was looking around, nearly spinning in a circle.
From the next car, Jerrold and Treavor looked at each other in dread, while leaning against the first one, the girls just groaned.
Houston called to him, “Give us time, son. We’re not even unpacked. I thought it was windsurfing, though.”
Buzz piped up again, “Both, Dad Two. I want to do both.” Excitement made his words ring.
“He’s your boy, Houston,” Riley called with a laugh, reaching into the cab for his bottle of water.
ANGELIQUE stepped from the limo, slipping her sunglasses to her face. As Riley’s words rang out, her eyes found Houston. The picture was a classic scenario from Fisherman’s World. Tall, handsome man casts fly. Foolish fish lets itself get hooked, except in this case, she was the fish.
She looked away, ashamed. Then, Riley’s words sank in. The man’s voice calling out to his . . . companion about their shared son was a knife driving deep into her devastated heart, and the words made her feel guilty and low. She had let herself be attracted to this man’s significant other, when she had no right.
In spite of her unwelcome surge of guilt, deep down where she dared not look too closely, she knew what Lucas had done, and that she should have no compunctions at snatching up any man who crossed her path. She should be bold and brash, announcing to the world that she would not take life’s thrashings without striking back, grabbing what she would, just as Lucas had been so cruelly taken from her.
Then her eyes shifted to the dark-haired man in the mirrored aviators, and she felt her spirits fall. He could never be what she needed him to be, but she was finding it strangely painful that such an amazing man had chosen to live his life with someone of his own gender.
Her eyes felt suddenly tight, and she knew she’d cry if she didn’t get away quickly. She fumbled with her purse and for a tissue, hoping she didn’t have to use it. She wouldn’t, because she was determined not to cry. No one here would see her break.
A new determination rose in her. She would be bright and strong, and there would be no mourning in her, at least not that anyone would see. That man who loved another man would see that she didn’t need him, even if he had crystal blue eyes, a musky smell, and the most soothing voice she’d ever heard. She’d cry her eyes out into her pillow every night for her lost Lucas, and she would refuse to think of that Cheeky person kissing her husband’s face. Then she’d arise each morning and frolic, frolic, frolic for six whole weeks.
She turned from the crowd and stared out to the brilliant blue sea, refusing to let her eyes return to Houston. She hated auto racing, anyway. It was a stupid sport, and anyone who drove race cars wasn’t someone she could love in any case. Hadn’t she always said that?
Yet, even in the depths of her pain, she knew she had never said any such thing, and underneath her frustration, she knew how she really felt about that handsome man lying in another man’s bed at night. It was unfair, unfair, unfair. That’s why she hated all race car drivers, and she would say that to anyone she knew.
Except Houston. She would never tell him that. It might bruise his feelings, and she could never do that, not even if he was the most awful man in the world.