“I know,” I whispered, pulling away and squinting up at the cloudless sky. Too pretty of a day for a funeral, I thought. I glanced at my dad, who looked as uncomfortable in dress pants and shirt as Gordon did.
Dad caught my stare, and I saw the bone-deep sadness in his otherwise steady gaze. Charlie had been like a third son to him, to both of my parents. I knew this was hurting them, too.
“Walk with me, baby,” he urged, and I went over to my dad’s side. He draped an arm over my shoulder as he guided me through the double doors.
Reece stayed close behind me as I tried not to breathe too deeply. I hated the smell of funeral homes. The mixture of floral and something else I really didn’t want to think about.
I was surprised when I recognized the two people signing the guest book. Jax and Calla were here. “Hey,” I said, voice low as I stepped ahead of my father. “Guys, I . . .”
Calla approached me, smiling sadly. “The rest of the gang couldn’t make it, but I was able to skip class today.”
“You didn’t have to come,” I told them.
“We know,” replied Jax. He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
I was literally moved beyond words. Never knew what that felt like before. Totally got it now. They didn’t know Charlie, never had the pleasure of knowing him, but they were here, for me.
All of us piled into the large room where the service was being held, and I sat between my dad and Reece, staring straight ahead. The casket was closed, and Charlie’s parents were sitting up front, their backs straight through the whole shebang. Part of me knew that I should make an attempt to go talk to them, but so much festered inside me. I was never close to them, never comfortable in their sterile and rigid home. I remembered how they treated Charlie, like he was something to be ashamed of.
That wasn’t fair either, because Charlie knew how they felt.
When the service finally drew to a close, tears streaked my mother’s face and my father’s eyes were glassy. I couldn’t cry. My eyes were broken. That frustrated me as I rose from the uncomfortable pew. The burning was there, in my chest and throat, and had been there since the phone call, but it was like something had broken off deep inside me.
Reece’s hand landed on the small of my back and moved in a slow, comforting circle as we waited our turn to step into the center aisle. The urge to turn and wrap my arms around him was hard to ignore.
On our way out, I thought I caught a glimpse of Henry slipping out one of the side doors. That pressure thickened in me as I stared at where I thought he’d been. I wasn’t sure how to feel about Henry coming to Charlie’s funeral. A few weeks ago I would’ve been spitting mad, like puking green vomit and head-spinning level of rage, but now? I almost wanted to laugh—the hysterical never-ending kind of laugh. I wanted to sit down in the middle of the funeral home and laugh.
“Babe, you okay?” Reece asked.
I nodded slowly, realizing I was probably rocking one hell of a crazy face.
He took my hand in his and squeezed gently. “We can take a couple of minutes if you want.”
God, he was . . . so good to me.
“I’m okay,” I said, and I think everyone within a ten-mile radius knew that wasn’t the case at all, but Reece held my hand tight as we started out of the funeral home.
The walk out to the gravesite was as quiet as one would expect such a thing to be. Our group stood near the back, and when I saw the hearse arrive, I looked away hastily. My gaze landed on the grave.
I sucked in a sharp breath, and all I got was the suffocating scent of rich soil. This was really happening. This was it. No more trips on Friday. No more hope that one day Charlie would get better, that he’d look at me and say my name.
That he’d tell me that all of this wasn’t my fault.
Oh God. A slight tremble rocked my body, starting in my toes pinched due to the too-tight black heels, coursing all the way up the tips of my fingers.
Reece let go of my hand and slipped his arm over my shoulder. He bowed his head, pressing his lips against my temple, and my heart squeezed even more, clenched to the point I wondered if I was having a heart attack.
Instead of standing at Charlie’s funeral, I saw myself standing at Reece’s. Might’ve sounded crazy, but because of his line of work, it was believable. One day I could be standing right here and saying good-bye to him.
I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs.
Pain sliced through me. I couldn’t do this anymore. I turned to Reece, saying just that.
“Okay. I’m going to get you out of here,” he said, and I knew he didn’t get it. He couldn’t get it. He turned to my father, speaking too low for me to hear. My dad nodded, and then without saying a word, Reece steered me away from the graveside service.
I was walking fast, my hands balled into tight fists by the time we reached his truck. When we were both inside, I stared out the windshield as Reece drove and once we were back at his condo, I wasn’t feeling empty. I was feeling wild, like an animal snared in a trap.
I knew what I needed to do.
Being with Reece could easily end up with me being utterly destroyed, beyond the point of repair. For a sweet, brief time I convinced myself that I could deal with that. I could let myself fall for him and it would be worth that risk. Standing there at Charlie’s grave was a brutal wake up call.
I had to have the strength to walk away.
Sliding past Reece, I headed straight to his bedroom, where my suitcase and tote were next to the dresser. I took my glasses off, placing them atop the dresser and then pulled my hair up into a quick bun.