Apart from everyone, Matthew haunted the window, stoic and unyielding as always, refusing to engage or share his misery with anyone. Not even Lucas.
The scene unfolded in surreal, grinding slow motion. He couldn’t process the idea of his grandfather, the Wheeler patriarch, being gone.
Cia, her long, shiny hair flying, barreled into the waiting room and straight into Lucas. He flung his arms around her small body in a fierce clinch.
The premise that she’d come solely for the sake of appearances vanished. She was here. His wife was in his arms, right where she should be. The world settled. He clutched her tight, and coconut and lime wafted into his senses, breaking open the weight on his chest.
Now it was real. Now it was final. Grandpa was gone, and he hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.
“I’m glad you came,” Lucas said, and his voice hitched. “He didn’t make it.”
“I’m sorry, so sorry. He was a great man,” she murmured into his shirt, warm hands sliding along his back, and they stood there for forever while he fought for control over the devastating grief.
When he tilted his head to rest a cheek on top of Cia’s hair, he caught Matthew watching them, arms crossed, with an odd expression on his face. Missing his own wife most likely.
Finally, Lucas let Cia slip from his embrace. She gripped his hand and followed silently as he spoke to his dad, then she drove him to his parents’ house with careful attention to the speed limit.
Mama talked about funeral arrangements with his father and grandmother, and through it all Cia never left his side, offering quiet support and an occasional comforting squeeze. Surely she had other commitments, other things she’d rather be doing than hanging out in a place where everyone spoke in hushed tones about death.
Her keys remained in her purse, untouched, and she didn’t leave.
It meant a lot that she cared enough to stay. It said a lot, too—they’d become friends as well as lovers. He hadn’t expected that. He’d never had that.
For the first time, he considered what might happen after the divorce. Would they still have contact? Could they maintain some kind of relationship, maybe a friends-with-benefits deal?
He pondered the sudden idea until Matthew motioned him outside. Cia buzzed around the kitchen fixing Mama a drink, so he followed his brother out to the screened-in porch.
Matthew retrieved a longneck from a small refrigerator tucked into the corner, popped the top with the tail of his button-down in a practiced twist and flopped into a wicker chair, swigging heartily from the bottle.
Lucas started to comment about the hour, but a beer with his brother on the afternoon of his grandfather’s death didn’t sound half-bad. Might cure his dry throat.
Bottle in hand, Lucas took the opposite chair and swung one leg over the arm. “Long day.”
Matthew swallowed. “Long life. Gets longer every day.”
“That’s depressing.” His life got better every day, and considering the disaster it had been, that was saying something. Lucas hesitated but plunged ahead. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. But I have to.” He sighed. “First Amber. Now Grandpa. I’m done. It’s the last straw. I can’t take it anymore.”
That sounded serious. Suicidal even. Lucas looked at his normally solid and secure brother. “Do you need a vacation?”
“Yeah.” Matthew laughed sarcastically. “From myself. Problem is they don’t offer that with an all-inclusive resort package. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get me back on track, but whatever it is, it’s not here.”
“Where is it?”
Shrugging, Matthew drained his beer in record time. “I have no idea. But I have to look for it. So I’m leaving. Not just for a few days. Permanently.”
“Permanently?” Lucas shook his head. Matthew was a Wheeler. Wheelers didn’t take off and let the chips fall. Everything Lucas knew about being a Wheeler he’d learned from watching his brother succeed at whatever he attempted. Obviously Matthew was overtired. “You can’t leave. Take some time away. You’ve been working too much, which is my fault. Let me handle clients for a week or two. Backpack through the Himalayas or drink margaritas in Belize. But you have to come back.”
“No, I don’t. I can’t.” Stubborn to the core. That was one Wheeler trait they shared.
“Wheeler Family Partners isn’t a one-man show. We just lost Grandpa. Dad’s been taking a backseat for a couple of years, and now he’s going to be the executor for Grandpa’s estate. We’re it.”
And Matthew was more it than Lucas-the-gray-sheep could ever be.