In the cool evening breeze, inside a nicely furnished apartment, a beautiful lady smoothed her shirt and ran her hands down the legs of her jeans. Not what she normally wore to the cemetery on the anniversary of her husband’s burial. In the last two years, she’d worn black. It hadn’t seemed respectful to go casual, as if the visit wasn’t that important.
But she also knew that Clement wouldn’t want her to live like this. He’d want her to be happy. And it wouldn’t have made him happy to know she still mourned him so deeply.
With a sigh, she applied a light gloss to her lips and quickly fastened her long hair into a ponytail, leaving part of it loose in a messy bun.
This was the real her. Not fussy. More comfortable in jeans and a casual shirt than the expensive dresses and jewelry her husband had loved to spoil her with. Only underneath her clothing did she wear the sexy lingerie her husband had so loved to see her in.
She closed her eyes, refusing to look back, to remember how it felt when he touched her. How his hands moved over her body, knowing it better than she knew it herself. He knew exactly how to please her, how to touch her, kiss her, make love to her.
He’d given her everything she could have ever wanted. His love. His respect. Everything but the one thing she needed most, and it was something she could have never asked him for. She’d loved him too much to ever demand of him something he couldn’t give her.
She shook away the heavy veil of sadness, determined to get through the day and on with her life. Her new life.
She picked up the flowers, her favorite, and brought them to her nose, closing her eyes as she inhaled. They were what Clement always gave her. Every birthday. Every anniversary. Or any time just because. Today she’d place them on his grave and walk away. This time for good.
She didn’t need to see the cold slab of marble that marked his life and death to remind her of her husband. That wasn’t the way she wanted to remember him. She was through torturing herself by standing over his grave, missing him with her every breath.
He’d live in her heart and soul always. That was where she’d visit him in the future. Not on the grassy knoll that covered the casket underneath.
She walked briskly to the front door, letting herself out and blinking against the sudden wash of sun. Though it was spring, the Houston weather was already warm and she was glad she’d worn the short-sleeved T-shirt instead of the black dress she always wore.
And there was Derrick, leaning against his car, waiting for her as she knew he would be. He straightened when he saw her, and she saw a brief flicker of surprise before he schooled his features and extended a hand to her.
She slid her fingers over his and he gave her hand a light squeeze. No words were necessary. They both grieved the loss of her husband and his best friend.
“You look lovely, Sandra,” he said as he walked her around to the passenger side.
She smiled, knowing she didn’t look particularly lovely today. And he was likely surprised by her casual appearance, but he didn’t remark on it. He took the flowers and carefully positioned them in the back so they wouldn’t fall over, and then closed her door after ensuring she was fully inside.
She watched him stride around the front of the car, his long legs eating up the distance in a matter of seconds. Then he slid into the driver’s seat and his scent wafted through her nostrils.
Derrick always smelled the same. Utterly masculine, though she knew he never wore cologne or aftershave. He was a no-frills kind of guy, much like Clement had been, though her husband had worn expensive clothing and even his casual wear was tailored to fit his personality.
Even Derrick’s car fitted his personality. A sleek black Jaguar. How appropriate he drove a vehicle named for a predator. He fit the part well.
They’d been partners in business, but Clement had always been the front man. The one who wined and dined clients, the polished spokesman, the one who sealed the deals, attended all the social events while Derrick worked behind the scenes. The closer. The one who always did most of the legwork and fixed the problems.
Clement had often laughed and said he was the looks and charm and Derrick was the brains of the operation. But Derrick was certainly not lacking in looks or charm. They were the complete antithesis of one another. Clement was fair-haired to Derrick’s dark brown, and while Clement’s eyes were blue, Derrick’s were a deep brown, enhanced by his darker coloring. He wasn’t any less attractive than Clement. His was just a quieter attractiveness. Silent. Brooding almost. He had made Sandra nervous back when she’d first met him when she and Clement had dated. Theirs had been a whirlwind courtship. Clement had swept her off her feet, and Sandra had known that Derrick was concerned that his friend was getting in way over his head. Moving too fast. The fact Sandra knew that had made her wary of Derrick, but over time, he’d become her rock. Especially after Clement had died.
As they drove out of Sandra’s exclusive subdivision, Derrick reached over for her hand, lacing his fingers through hers, and as he’d done before, he squeezed lightly, a gesture of reassurance.
Sandra turned and smiled at him, telling him without words that she was okay. As they stopped at a red light, Derrick studied her intently, almost as if he were trying to decipher what was different about her.
Evidently satisfied with whatever he’d seen in her eyes or expression, he smiled back, but he kept hold of her hand as he navigated through traffic on the way to the cemetery, just a few miles from where Sandra and Clement had lived.
They drove in comfortable silence, but then they’d never conversed much on the day Derrick drove her to the cemetery every year. Oh, Sandra visited at other times, but Derrick always accompanied her on the anniversary.
But that wasn’t the only time she saw Derrick. He’d stepped in from the moment Clement had passed away and he’d been her rock ever since. That first year especially, she’d needed him desperately and he never hesitated, no matter what she needed, whether it was help deciphering the paperwork and red tape after her husband’s death or simply coming over to keep her company on the days she felt herself falling apart.
She would be forever grateful for Derrick and his unwavering support over the last three years, but it was time to move on. It was time for her to stand on her own two feet and it was time for him to stop having to babysit her.
Today was not only about her letting go of Clement, but of Derrick as well. He deserved more than to be saddled with the responsibility of his best friend’s widow. He had a life of his own. She had no idea of his relationships or if he was even in a steady relationship. She realized with sudden clarity just how selfish and self-absorbed she’d been since her husband’s death. Derrick had been a steady fixture, one she’d taken for granted, but she would do it no longer. It would be a miracle if Derrick were in a steady relationship because not many women would be tolerant of him dropping everything to rush to the aid of his best friend’s widow.
When they arrived at the cemetery, Derrick parked and Sandra immediately got out, not waiting for him to come around for her. She opened the door to the backseat and leaned in to retrieve the flowers.
“I’ll get them, Sandra.”
Derrick’s low voice brushed over her ears, causing a prickle at her nape. She picked up the vase and turned with a reassuring smile.
“I’ve got it, Derrick. I’m okay.”
He gave her an inscrutable stare and she got the impression he was studying her again, trying to peel back the layers and get into her head. It was as if he knew something was different but couldn’t put his finger on it. Which was just as well, because she would die if he could read her thoughts. If he knew just what it was she’d planned and how she intended to move on with her life.
He’d be horrified, no doubt. He’d wonder if she’d finally snapped and he’d probably haul her into a shrink’s office so fast it would make her head spin. Which was why she had no intention of letting him know.
Her girlfriends were another matter. Karla would understand absolutely. She’d even be encouraging. Sophia . . . not so much.
Sophia was Sandra’s sister-in-law, Clement’s only sibling. They’d both grown up in horrific circumstances, and just as Clement could never provide what Sandra craved—needed—neither would Sophia ever understand what drove Sandra.
She might even be angry with Sandra’s choices. Might think it was a betrayal of her brother. Sandra could only hope she’d support her even if she didn’t fully understand.
But she was getting ahead of herself. First the cemetery and talking to Clement one last time. Then she’d tackle her best friends over lunch. She needed as much as possible to keep busy today, because tonight?
Tonight was when it all began.
Sandra waited for the betraying sting of tears as they neared Clement’s grave. But oddly, she felt at peace for the first time in three long years. Yes, it was time.
She knelt and gently brushed away the leaves and dust at the base of the headstone before setting the vase of flowers in the middle. Her gaze drifted upward to the inscription. The reminder of Clement’s birth and death.
Her finger slowly traced the words. Beloved husband, brother and best friend. Those words said it all. A reminder of those left behind who mourned him still. She’d insisted that Derrick be honored on the headstone, as he was every bit as much family as herself and Sophia. She only wished they’d had children so his legacy and memory would live on through them.
But as with any young couple, they’d thought they had all the time in the world. Clement was apprehensive about having children. He feared that he shared the same genetic traits that his father had possessed. No matter how many times Sandra had gently reminded him that he was nothing like his father, he still lived in fear of hurting those he loved the most.
She understood his fear. She knew how much he loved her. She also knew he’d die before ever hurting her or any children they had. But the darkness of his past still overshadowed his present. The past still haunted his dreams at night. Though Sophia his sister, hadn’t spoken of it often, she knew that Sophia had the same nightmares that Clement had. That she shared many of the same sleepless nights he experienced.
A wave of sadness overtook Sandra. Such a waste. Clement’s father had destroyed the lives of two innocent children. Worse, he lived on well into their adulthood, influencing their choices, always living in their fears even though he was dead. He still held them in his grasp from the grave, his memory and the memories of all he did torturing them still.
Derrick softly called her name, breaking through her thoughts, and she realized just how long she’d knelt there at the base of the monument, tracing the inscription with her fingers.
He sounded worried and a little uncertain, and he was never nothing if not sure of himself.
She turned, tilting her head up so her gaze connected with his.
“Give me a moment, please. Wait for me at the car if you don’t mind. I’ll only take a few minutes and then I’ll be ready to go.”
Again, surprise flickered in Derrick’s eyes. Never before had she asked to be left alone at Clement’s grave. It had been too difficult, too emotional. Derrick had always remained at her side, steady and strong, her rock to lean on. He’d stayed with her as long as she wanted to remain and then he’d take her back to the car and back home, where he’d spend the rest of the afternoon sitting with her as she cried on his shoulder.
Not today. Not anymore.
“If you’re sure,” he said hesitantly.
She nodded firmly, making sure no tears threatened. She wasn’t going to unravel in front of him. She’d been doing that far too long.
“All right,” he conceded. “Take your time, honey. I’ve arranged to take the entire day off.”
She smiled. Of course he would have. But she didn’t intend for him to spend it with her as he’d done in the past. There was too much to get done before tonight. And she didn’t want to chance breaking her resolve and confiding in him. Not only was it not appropriate, but he would most certainly not approve. He’d think she’d lost her damn mind.
And maybe she had. Or perhaps she was just getting it back.
She turned back as Derrick headed toward the car and then pushed herself upward to stand over the grave. She stared down, her jaw tight, locking down her emotions for the conversation she intended to have with her husband.
“I love you, you know,” she said, almost as if he were standing there in front of her. “I’ll always love you, Clement. But I want you to know I’m going to move on. Try to move on,” she amended. “Starting tonight. I know there were . . . things . . . you couldn’t give me. And I want you to know I never resented you for that. God, I loved you far too much to ever expect you to give me something it was impossible for you to give.
“But you’re gone now.”
Her voice cracked as she said the last, and she swallowed back the surge of tears.
“I’m lonely, Clement. I miss you so much. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss you. You were so good to me. The love of my life. I know I’ll never find that again. Finding perfection once in a lifetime is incredible. But twice? No, I know there’ll never be another for me like you. But there are things I . . . need,” she whispered. “Things you couldn’t give me. Things I’d never ask you for. And I wanted to come here today to tell you. To say that I wouldn’t be back. Not because I don’t love you or that I’m going to forget you. But this isn’t what I want my memory of you to be. I want to remember you in life. And us in love. And it’s too painful for me to come here and talk to you, knowing that I’ll never get you back.”