I grab something to eat and make it home in one piece, getting ready to go about the business of death. Since there is no body or family involved, the funeral home offers me a time the day after tomorrow and I take it. I’ll make sure it’s in the paper in the morning and call everyone who needs to spread the word. When mom died, Dad and Aunt Sonja took care of all this stuff, so I’m not really practiced at arranging things. Janice usually makes my appointments and she’ll know who to call in the journalism world to get the notice out.

“Janice,” I say into the phone with a quivering voice. This will be the first time I’ve said these words out loud. “My father passed away this afternoon.”

“Oh, Julia, I’m so sorry,” she says with genuine love. “Sweetie, I’m sure it was his time. How are you? Are you okay?”

“Pretty much. I’m doing arrangements. He’s being cremated but there will be a memorial day after tomorrow at Greenfield’s chapel. Can you help me make some calls?”

“I can try. I’m in Missouri, but let me talk to Reggie and we can get the first flight back to New York.”

“No, Janice, don’t come back. I didn’t realize you weren’t here. I can handle it,” I try to reassure her when in truth we both know I can barely make dinner reservations without some disaster occurring.

“I had the week off from Lynx so we decided to take a trip. I don’t have a problem returning,” she offers.

“No, no, no,” I insist. “When the cremation part is done I’ll need you to come with me to release his ashes. That’s more important than now. Stay where you are.”

“What about Mark? Can he help you?”

“Um, yeah, he can,” I mumble, too tired and confused to deal with telling her the complicated saga of my love.

“Are you sure?” She doesn’t buy it.

“Yes, I’m not really used to having to lean on people so it’s hard but I know he will come through. I’ll see you when you return. Give Reggie my love.” I hang up before I break down completely.

Should I call Mark? Yes. Am I going to? No way in hell.

The next day is a flurry of necessary activity, phone calls and condolences. I end up putting the phone on silent and listening to it once every few hours to keep the voice mail from filling. One of the messages is from Mark.

“Hi Julia, it’s Mark. Janice called the office and told me about your father. I’m so sorry for his passing. I know this is a very hard time for you. If you need anything, ask me. I’m here for you.”

His earnest voice, deep and sure, brings a fresh round of tears to my already swollen eyes. I want to call. I want to run to him, jump in those strong arms and let him carry through this entire ordeal. But, I don’t. Something inside, some deep fear of loss or betrayal, resists all evidence that this kind of relationship can really exist and be true to form.

Greenfield’s chapel is full of flowers when I enter, including a beautiful spray from Janice and Reggie I know they can’t afford.

“He was such a nice person,” I hear a lady whisper. “Such a loss.”

“She’s so young to have lost both parents,” her older friend replies. “Is she married?”

“No. She’s the career type. She ran some magazine but it got bought out or something. I think she’s looking for work.”

“Maybe she should look for more in life,” the judgmental old crone caws.

I purposely turn, pretending to look for someone, just to see who the rude old cows are and make a plan to write them a very pointed thank you note. As the service starts, I realize attendance is small, and the majority of mourners are friends of Dad’s from work and bowling. Very few in the journalism world even bothered to show up. Word must be out that I’m washed up or they would be here. If Valerie James’s father passed away, this chapel would be full.

Frantically I try to focus on someone, something, anything, to get my mind off her and then I see the last person I need to see: Greg. He looks happy. The woman with him is dressed in a modest blue skirt and blazer. However, unless she’s developed midlife spread about twenty years too early, her attire is hiding a definite baby bump. My focus narrows to their fingers. Rings, matching ones, are all I see. Good for you, Greg.

I imagine strangling both him and his pregnant bride with a Calla Lily from Janice’s bouquet.

The music plays and the chaplain speaks, inviting many of Dad’s friends to stand up and share memories of times they spent with Dad. Many of them gesture toward me talking about how I was the apple of his eye. I wonder what he would see now. A song begins and we all stand, listening to the soloist sing of how Dad is “with the Lord.” Bitterness floods me. Even in death he has someone and I am here alone. Utterly, totally alone. No parents, no children, no friends, no lover–hell, I don’t even have a goldfish. I’m just alone.

I dry a tear with a tissue only to have it replaced with three more. Then, I feel it. A warm presence, a comfort, a hand holding mine. At first I think my great aunt must have seen me standing here by myself and decided to join me. But the hand is stronger and surer than the prune-like fingers of an eighty year old with paper-thin skin. I turn to acknowledge this comfort and gasp aloud when I see that it’s Mark.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he whispers loud enough for the women behind me who were so concerned about my prospects to hear. When he sees my gratitude flowing from my smile, he wraps his arm around me and I bury my head against his chest. He leans down and kisses my head and once we are seated for the end of the memorial I have a permanent resting spot in his embrace.

The wall, the final wall, breaks. I get it. Mark loves me. He isn’t just using me. He isn’t just interested in Lynx, or beating his brother, or replacing Valerie, or making a point. This isn’t about business, ambition or sex. He simply loves me in a tangible, enduring, beautiful way. Dad is with Mom now, but finally I have someone by my side too.

“I love you, Mark Stone,” I say as we rise to walk to the front of the chapel where he will stand beside me and receive the condolences.

“I know,” he says softly squeezing my hand and offering me the most reassuring smile on the planet. “I love you too.”

Chapter 20

Funerals are a bit barbaric for the family. Not only have I just lost my dad, but now I have to be hugged, shake hands, and graciously listen to friends and strangers all talk about him, then tell me they’re sorry as they head to their cars for a nice dinner out. Even with Mark standing beside me, the process brings me face to face with folks I’d rather forget.

Tags: Priscilla West Billionaire Romance
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